According to the social model of disability, 'disability' is socially constructed.

The social model of disability contrasts with what is called the medical model of disability.

According to the medical model of disability, ‘disability’ is a health condition dealt with by medical professionals. People with disability are thought to be different to 'what is normal'or abnormal. ‘Disability’ is seen 'to be a problem of the individual. From the medical model, a person with disability is in need of being fixed or cured. From this point of view, disability is a tragedy and people with disability are to be pitied. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be.

The social model sees  ‘disability’ is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.

A social model perspective does not deny the reality of impairment nor its impact on the individual.  However, it does challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity.

The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society.  It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others.

The social model of disability is now the internationally recognised way to view and address ‘disability’. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) marks the official paradigm shift in attitudes towards people with disability and approaches to disability concerns.

People with disability are not "objects" of charity, medical treatment and social protection but "subjects" with rights, capable of claiming those rights, able to make decisions for their own lives based on their free and informed consent and be active members of society.

In this context:

  • Impairment is a medical condition that leads to disability; while
  • Disability is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and barriers in the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment.
    It is not the inability to walk that keeps a person from entering a building by themselves but the stairs that are inaccessible that keeps a wheelchair-user from entering that building.