Approaching Disability: Social & Rights-Based Models
Disability—the preferred umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions—refers to the dynamic interaction between an individual with a health condition and that individual’s environmental and personal, contextual factors.
Social constructs, like beliefs about disabilities, create multiple barriers—attitudinal, communication and physical—that can impede an individual’s ability to thrive in a learning environment. Various models have been employed over time to address disability inclusion in education programming, with social and rights-based models preferred.
Below, we discuss these models.
Out With The Old: Charity & Medical Models
The charity model sees people with disabilities as victims of their impairment(s) and disability is seen as a deficit. This model reinforces negative stereotypes about disability, as it does not address the strengths of individuals or their ability to be active and participating members of society. In education, this model encourages the provision of education, assistive devices and support services as an act of charity rather than recognizing that education is a human right, assistive technologies and support services are vital enablers for learning.
Similarly fixated on negative stereotypes, the medical model focuses on what is wrong or needs to be fixed through medical treatments and/or interventions, even in cases without pain or illness. This focus creates low expectations and leads to people losing independence, choice and control in their own lives. Educationally speaking, this model disenfranchises learners with disabilities; it requires a medical diagnosis to enroll in school, places an expectation on teachers to ensure learners with disabilities must learn the skills of people without disabilities to become successful and assumes all individuals with the same diagnosis learn the same way, and thus teach to the disability label instead of the child. In other words, it limits a child’s potential based on a disability label.
In With The New: Social & Rights-Based Approaches
Conversely, the social model focuses on the barriers that exist in society—in large part because of how systems, buildings and processes are designed without considering the needs of others—and how to reduce those barriers to ensure full and equitable participation in society for individuals with disabilities. This, along with the rights-based model—which positions disability as an important dimension of human culture, and affirms that all human beings, irrespective of their disabilities, have certain rights that are inalienable—are the preferred models for disability inclusive education.
Disability inclusive education recognizes that all children have unique learning strengths and learning needs. It seeks to make changes to the existing education system to allow for children and youth with disabilities to access education on a full and equitable basis with others.
This process includes a twin-track approach—combining social and rights-based approaches— in embracing a holistic change in the education system. The use of a twin-track approach consists of both mainstreaming disability throughout activities for development and providing disability-specific programming in cases where particular supports are required.
For disability inclusive education to happen effectively, the process should recognize members of the disability community as key stakeholders and not homogenous, with each disability type having their own unique needs. The process should be deliberate, purposeful, systematic and multi-layered. Simultaneously, it should integrate solutions that are designed to respond to the various needs of people with various disabilities (e.g. braille, differentiated learning, sign languages) into the education system and also work to close the gaps that exist in capacity, knowledge and skills. This is particularly important for students who least benefit from the current education system as is.
It is important to note that while the social and rights-based approaches discussed above are invaluable for conceptualizing and designing disability inclusive education projects and activities, it is still the case that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be employed in every situation.