Hand pointing at laptop

The word disability often conjures up all sorts of images and ideas. Wheelchairs, walking sticks, hearing aids and guide dogs all feature prominently in the minds of most people when they think about disability, if they think about the matter at all.

On top of the visible features of disability, the notion of disablement also invariably includes issues surrounding medical problems or difficulties faced by people impaired to some degree by their condition.

Disability vs disablement

Now, all of this is certainly true, but if you were asked to say what disability actually is, rather than name as many disabilities as you can, you’d probably be hard pressed to do so. This is largely because we are all culturally conditioned to some extent to consider issues around disability in terms of medical or physical problems, in which the root cause of the problems lay firmly within the disabled individual. So, when asked why a person who uses a wheelchair has difficulty entering a building, one’s instinct is to answer because they are disabled. In other words, disability is inherent because of the physical impairment.

But what if rather than talk about disability, we instead talk about the notion of disablement? What we mean by this is that in our minds we need to separate disability and impairment, in effect make them two entirely different things. An impairment then becomes the actual condition the person experiences, for example:

  • Reduced physical mobility
  • A hearing/visual impairment
  • Dyslexia
  • A long-term medical condition.

The social model of disability

Disability now is not necessarily the medicalised condition the individual has, but rather it is the barrier facing the individual preventing their full participation in society. Going back to the example of the person in the wheelchair, disablement in this instance is not entirely attributable to the fact they use a wheelchair, but can now be seen as being caused by the absence of accessibility, particularly a ramp.

This concept of disability is known as the social model of disability. The social model removes the fault of the disablement away from the individual, and places it as a societal problem. Its principles are similar to many other emancipatory movements, such as feminism, civil rights and trans activism in that it focuses on those cultural, institutional and societal elements that are identified as directly discriminating the disabled community. As a result, this discrimination hinders full and equal access to health, work, education and leisure to everyone in society.

Dyslexia and disability support services

Leeds Trinity University follows the social model of disability as closely as possible. Our overriding endeavour is to put in place reasonable adjustments within the teaching and learning environment to minimise any instance of inaccessibility or discrimination, whilst acknowledging the very real experiences of physical, visual, hearing or mental impairments. We work with students to ensure that recommendations and adjustments suit their individual needs, enabling their full inclusion into the Leeds Trinity community. You can find out more about dyslexia and disability support services on the website.

Dr Stephen Campbell is the Dyslexia and Disability Coordinator at Leeds Trinity University. He recently wrote a blog for Times Higher Education about how COVID-19 has brought about essential flexibility with online learning for disabled students

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