One of the key pillars I talk about in my disability awareness is how society disables us with its barriers of inaccessibility and misconceptions.

Growing up as a young child in the 70’s, disability awareness was almost non-existent and the way we lived with a disability was very much influenced by the medical model of disability.

Medical Model of Disability

This model is based on the concept that the problem is the disabled person and therefore that person needs to be “fixed”.  The narrative was focussed on the things that person can’t do. For example “Sarah can’t hear” or “Emma can’t walk” or “Rick can’t see.” It views that people are disabled because their disabilities limit them.

That model, that way of thinking, removes any obligation from society and workplaces to remove barriers that disabled people face. Instead, it places the problem squarely at the disabled person’s feet. For example:

  • I can’t enjoy a film at the cinema because I cannot fully hear what is being said
  • I find it difficult to travel by train when there are delays or changes because I can’t fully hear the tannoy announcements at train stations
  • I cannot easily change my banking password because I am deaf so cannot use telephone banking.

The impact of growing up with the medical model is you end up feeling like you are the problem. You are made to feel that you need to change to fit into society and become more socially acceptable. You might also end up masking your natural behaviour or personality just to fit in. A coping mechanism that is mentally and physically exhausting.

It can also give rise to feelings of shame and embarrassment, to social isolation and loneliness. It can lead to not accepting yourself or your disability and therefore who you are.

A lack of accessibility at work from an employer under this model will prevent you from doing your job and therefore performing to your very best. This can create low self-esteem and a lack of confidence.

All of this can give rise to a scary and dangerous mental health downward spiral.

But there is another model which challenges that way of thinking – it’s called the Social Model of Disability.

Social Model of Disability

This model is based on the concept that people are disabled by barriers in society and NOT by their disabilities. The examples I described above can be reframed under this model as follows:

  • I can’t enjoy a film at the cinema because there are no captions.
  • I find it difficult to travel by train when there are delays or changes because schedule updates are only provided over a tannoy across a busy, noisy station and there are no alternative ways of relaying that information
  • I cannot easily change my banking password because the bank only provides this service via telephone banking, with no accessible alternative ways of changing my password.

Under the social model, the problem is the disabling world and its barriers.

There are three types of barriers:

Environmental barriers. These include inaccessible public spaces, buildings, and transport as well as lack of accessibility in the workplace. Also lack of services such as British Sign Language interpreters and poor communication.

Institutional barriers. Lack of employment opportunities and job prospects. Also lack of inclusive education as well as non-inclusive legislation, policies and processes. Things that are systemic.

Attitudinal barriers. Negative stereotyping and assumptions, poor understanding and awareness. Also unconscious bias and discrimination.

The social model places the responsibility back to society and workplaces to remove these barriers and become more inclusive for people with disabilities. It’s not the disability that makes our lives hard but the barriers we face in society and in the workplace.

Barriers in the workplace

In following the social model, companies and employers should look to remove the barriers in the workplace by way of inclusive actions and behaviours. These barriers include, but are not limited to:

  • Inaccessibility, such as lack of workplace adjustments to do your job.
  • Lack of communication and non-inclusive language.
  • Unconscious bias and therefore discrimination.

When the social model is adopted in the workplace and employers look to remove these barriers, the positive impacts on disabled people are many e.g.

  • It removes the obligation from the disabled person to change in order to fit in and become more socially acceptable.
  • Instead of being made to feel like they are a problem and are “difficult”, they are treated with respect and understanding.
  • Instead of feeling like an outsider, they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance.
  • And instead of feeling prevented from, they feel enabled to work to the best of their ability, therefore feeling valued by their employer as well as gaining self-worth and pride.

The right workplace adjustments can empower disabled people to be independent in the workplace and to do their job on an equitable basis. The social model rightly and fairly puts the responsibility back to the employer to provide these adjustments.

It also educates people to be more inclusive and demonstrate inclusive behaviours in the workplace as allies for people with disabilities.

It is not reasonable, nor at all fathomable, to expect disabled people to be the ones to adjust. For example: I cannot, after all, make myself “less deaf” in order to participate in a team meeting via remote video conference without any reasonable adjustments.

Taking it further and creating change

As with anything in life, we don’t know what we don’t know. Only when we are actively involved in a particular situation do we begin to understand it, learn from it and grow.

This is true of the social model of disability. It changes perspectives, misconceptions and inherited or copied beliefs. Leaders and workplace peers experiencing the social model in action are working in a more inclusive way and demonstrating inclusive behaviours. They begin to think inclusively.

This can filter through to other aspects of work and life, recognising barriers wherever they go, and realising just how much in society is designed in a way that unfairly excludes people with disabilities. We live in an ableist world, a world that is not designed for people with disabilities.

When we apply this into our line of work, not just to colleagues but into our actual jobs, wider change starts to happen and new solutions appear e.g.

  • “This marketing film I’m creating needs captions or our deaf employees and customers won’t know what’s being said”.
  • “Tannoy announcements alone aren’t enough, there will be travellers who won’t know their platform has moved, they’ll miss their train. We need to provide live captions and sign language interpreters”
  • “How are our deaf customers supposed to change their banking passwords if we can only do it over the phone? We need to find another way.”

The social model is the opposite of the medical model in every way. Instead of creating isolation, it enables inclusivity. Instead of forcing division, it promotes collaboration. Instead of preventing the world from moving forward, it produces positive progress and change.

If you would like to find out more about how you can follow the social model of disability and help remove the barriers in the workplace, visit my website or get in touch via my email address for further training and help.

Written in collaboration with Written by Lyds Ltd (

Read more about me Sarah Petherbridge