A woman with a cane, a man in a wheelchair, and an amputee behind a barrier that says society.

We need to change to the Social Model of Disability

Blog by Phil Turner, Chief Executive of the NZ Disability Employers' Network (NZDEN)


How do you think about disability?

Do you see it as a problem that belongs to the individual or to society? Do you see it as something that needs to be fixed, or accepted as a standard part of human diversity?

How you think about disability matters. It affects how you treat disabled people and how you design our society. The different models, or frameworks, of disability have been developed over time by different groups and movements and these influence our thinking.

The most common model of disability in New Zealand is the medical model. This model views disability as a problem that belongs to the individual. It focuses on what is 'wrong' with the person and how to 'fix' them. It assumes that disabled people need to be ‘cured’ or ‘normalised’.

Another model of disability is the social model. This model views disability as belonging to society. It focuses on how society creates barriers that exclude and discriminate against disabled people. The decisions that we as employers, teachers, politicians, and broader society make that build a world that only works for non-disabled people are the ones who disable people. The social model assumes that disabled people are diverse, equal, and should be included as they are. We, society, just need to make better decisions.

Why do we need to change our thinking?

The medical model of disability is outdated and harmful. It reinforces the stigma and stereotypes that disabled people face. It circulates the myths and stereotypes that disabled people are broken, inferior, dependent, and helpless. The medical model denies disabled people the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life.

Where the medical model of disability perpetuates negative assumptions around disability, the social model of disability is empowering. It challenges the stigma and stereotypes that disabled people face. It supports disabled people to feel valued, independent, and capable. It enables disabled people to live a full and meaningful life.

By changing our thinking from the medical model to the social model of disability, we can create a more just and fair society for everyone. Some New Zealanders already think in the social model, but imagine the possibilities if we all did. Imagine how much more diverse, inclusive, and accessible our society would be. Imagine how much more potential and contribution disabled people would have. Imagine how much more dignity and autonomy disabled people would enjoy.

How can we change our thinking?

Changing our thinking may not be easy, but it is possible.

Here are some ways we can do it:

  • Educate - we can learn about the different models and their implications, the history, culture, and rights of disabled people. By educating ourselves and our work colleagues we can challenge the myths and misconceptions that surround disability.
  • Listen – Disabled people are the experts, so we need to hear their stories and learn from their experiences. From listening we can learn to respect, value, and recognise the voices, opinions, and knowledge of disabled people.
  • Advocate - we can advocate for and implement policies and practices that remove the barriers and create the enablers for disabled people to participate in society. We can ensure that our laws, institutions, and services are accessible, inclusive, and responsive to the needs and aspirations of disabled people.

What are the benefits of changing our thinking?

Shifting away from the medical model of disability to the social model will benefit all of society, not just disabled people. Some of the benefits include:

  • Create a more diverse, inclusive, and accessible society that values and respects the human rights of all people. It will foster a culture of acceptance, tolerance, and solidarity among different groups and communities.
  • Unleash the potential and contribution of the 24% of Aotearoa’s population who are disabled. It will enable them to access education, employment, and other opportunities to improve their well-being and quality of life.
  • Benefit the economy, environment, and social fabric of our society. It will increase productivity, innovation, and creativity. Whilst reducing poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. If disabled people are included in society there will be enhanced social cohesion, civic engagement, and democratic participation.

Are you ready to change your thinking?

Employers can change their thinking by adopting the social model of disability in the workplace. You can start this by providing reasonable accommodations, flexible work arrangements (beyond working remotely), and disability awareness training for your staff. You can also hire, promote, and retain disabled people, and celebrate their achievements and talents.

Employees can change their thinking by supporting disabled colleagues and speak up against discrimination and harassment. You can also learn from your disabled colleagues' skills and experiences.

Let's change our thinking together!

Changing our thinking from the medical model to the social model of disability is not a one-off event. It is a continuous process. It is not a journey to take alone, it is a collective effort.  You can take steps by yourself to make small differences. But if we join together and take the journey side-by-side we can change the way Aotearoa views and interacts with disabled people.

Let's change our collective thinking together, and make New Zealand a more disability-friendly society.