Applying the Social Model of Disability to Web Accessibility

by Damian Sian

Creating accessible and inclusive Information Communication Technology (ICT) has many forces driving the advancements in the field of web accessibility. As practitioners of web accessibility we should be operating from a common set of definitions – not only of our compliance standards – but of the fundamental theoretical models that define our approach. There are two main theoretical models of disability, the medical model and the social model, that must should be considered in the discourse of defining the approach to web accessibility.

Medical Theoretical Model of Disability

The medical model stipulates that disability is an attribute of the person’s body being broken, imperfect, or otherwise not able to function in society. In the medical model, solutions come from medical interventions or changing a person’s behavior to fit into society. This model is evidenced by the World Health Organization’s definition of disability from 1980.

World Health Organization Definition of Disabilities in 1980

“Disability is a restriction of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. Disabilities are descriptions of disturbances in function at the level of the person.”

Source: United Nations page on disability specific instruments

Social Theoretical Model of Disability

In contrast, the social model stipulates that disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions created by the social environment. In this model, solutions come from revising cultural and ideological constructs. This change in perception is evidenced in the revision to the definition of disabilities by the World Health Organization uses today.

World Health Organization Definition of Disabilities Today

“Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers.”

Source: World Health Organization's updated definition on disability

Remediating Technology Not People

Creating accessible Information Communication Technology (ICT) that alleviates barriers to access based on a user’s level of ability is most closely associated with the principles found in the social model of disability. In the social model, disability happens at the points of interaction between a person and their society when they are denied access to ICT. When a person is denied access due to a technology barrier, the impairment to their ability did not occur because of their body’s limitations, rather the defect occurred in the technology. The role of web accessibility is then to provide the corrective course of action to remediate defects in technology to allow for the equal access of people of all abilities.

Related Links:

Theoretical models of disabilities described by

World Health Organization’s definitions of disability

Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit