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What do we actually mean by 'disabled'? Why do we say 'disability' and 'disabled' instead of 'diffability', 'differently-abled', 'special' or 'different'? What are disabling barriers?

At Shape, all of our work is informed by the Social Model of Disability. The Social Model holds that a person isn’t 'disabled' because of their impairment, health condition, or the ways in which they may differ from what is commonly considered the medical 'norm'; rather it is the physical and attitudinal barriers in society – prejudice, lack of access adjustments and systemic exclusion – that disable people. To say that someone is 'just different' or 'differently-abled' ignores the fact that they face these disabling barriers created by society, and implies that they do not experience discrimination, and that society does not need to change to become more accessible and inclusive.

The Social Model was developed by disabled people to identify and take action against discrimination, and to centre equality and human rights. This is in contrast to the traditional Medical Model, which presents disability as an individual, medical 'problem', focuses on what a person can't do because of their particular physical, neurological or psychological characteristics, centres care, cure and welfare instead of accessibility, independence and inclusion, and places responsibility and burden on the disabled individual. The Social Model takes the focus away from impairment; it places responsibility on government, organisations, businesses and individuals across all sectors of society to identify and implement constructive changes to remove barriers and increase access. A good place for organisations and companies to start is by undertaking professional Disability Equality Training and access consultation, services which can be provided to arts and cultural organisations by Shape.

Under the Social Model, disability is framed as a social construct created by barriers which can be changed and eliminated, providing a dynamic and positive model which identifies the causes of exclusion and inequality and proposes a solution. It is on society to make changes, not on the disabled person; for individuals and organisations to understand and then make the adjustments required to stop marginalising and excluding people whose bodies and minds don’t comply with society’s idea of what is normative and acceptable.

The Social Model makes a clear distinction between impairment (a condition, illness or loss/lack of function) and disability (barriers and discrimination). It also demonstrates that people from different impairment groups, far from having separate issues and interests, face common problems - such as lack of access to information and communication, environmental exclusion and discrimination in employment - and empowers them, along with their allies, to find common solutions to remove these barriers. It moves away from a position of 'blaming' the individual for their 'shortcomings', argues that impairment is and always will be present in society, and suggests that the only logical outcome is to plan and organise society in a way that includes, rather than excludes, disabled people. 

NDACA's Social Model Film

Read about the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive

Unlimited's 'Removing Barriers' Film

Unlimited's animation on the Social Model of Disability. Click here for an Audio Described version.

Explore all of our resources

We provide professional Disability Equality Training and access consultancy services for organisations wanting to become accessible, open up to disabled people and improve their diversity. To find out more please click here.

The disabled activist Vic Finkelstein is widely credited as the founder of the Social Model of Disability.  You can read more about him on his Wikipedia page at

This page is an adaptation of a resource created by Barbara Lisicki.

Banner image: A pair of hands with red nails are pictured multiple times across the image signing different letters in BSL.