There are a number of different ways of thinking and talking about disability. This document provides some historical context and resources around some of the more commonly used disability models and language.
Last updated: March 2021
The Medical Model of Disability focuses on a person’s impairment or medical condition (the “what’s wrong with you” model). It uses the term ‘person with disabilities’ to make an individual’s lack or loss of function the reason for them being unable to access or experience things in the same way as everyone else.
The Charity Model of Disability assumes a disabled person should be pitied because of those conditions. Also known as the tragedy model, it regards individuals as ‘brave’, ‘sufferers’ or people who need help. This model is most commonly seen in fundraising charities.
A side-effect of both of these models is ‘inspiration porn’, a coin termed by Australian disability rights activist and artist Stella Young. It portrays disabled people as inspirational purely because of their conditions or impairments, as people who manage to ‘triumph in the face of adversity’ or participate in everyday life ‘against all odds’.
More useful for those of us working in the arts sector is the Social Model of Disability, which grew out of the UK and US disability rights movements of the 1970s and 80s. The Social Model was developed by disabled people in direct response to the Medical Model of Disability. It uses the term ‘disabled people/person’ to refer to being disabled by social and environmental factors (the ‘what’s wrong with the world?’ / stares or stairs model). It uses ‘non-disabled’ rather than ‘able-bodied’ for the same reason.
The Human Rights Model of Disability recognises impairment as a natural part of human diversity, and acknowledged that diversity means achieving equity for disabled people is about far than removing social and environmental barriers. By building on the spirit of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Human Rights Model holds governments, employers and service providers accountable and requires them to take action.
The Affirmative Model of Disability draws even further on the idea of disability pride, another disability-led way of thinking that provides an opposing view to the Charity or Tragedy Models (predominantly used by non-disabled people).
In increasing scale, the Social, Human Rights and Affirmative Models all celebrate disability as an intrinsic and valued part of disabled people’s identity, recognise disabled people as experts in the matters that affect them, and call for equal treatment and access.
Identity-first vs people-first
Australia has not yet experienced a disability-led equal rights movement like those of the UK and US. Even our largest national disability advocacy campaign ( ‘Every Australian Counts’, which ran prior to the announcement of the National Disability Insurance Scheme) was not only overseen by predominantly non-disability-led organisations, but also put its primary focus on carers rather than disabled people themselves.
As a result, Australians are still more likely to use people-first language like ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘a woman with polio’.
However, this language has been criticised by disability advocates for: focusing on impairments (by using ‘disabilities’ to refer to conditions, not the social or environment experience of disability); inferring that disability can be separated from the person (as opposed to an intrinsic and important part of their identity); and even for questioning disabled people’s person-hood (lest, as Stella Young wrote, “Joe Public get confused about whether we fit in the animal, vegetable or mineral column”).
In 2013, Arts Access Australia (AAA) led a national research project into best-practice disability language in the Australian arts sector. Because of the country’s slow disability rights movement and knowledge, AAA proposed a compromise, transition position – suggesting the use of ‘people with disability’ (used in singular, not plural, to describe social barriers instead of impairments).
As Australia’s disability rights movement continues to grow, more people are turning to the identity-first language of the Social and Affirmative Models. This rights-based language is also starting to be seen as the minimum standard for arts and disability practice in Australia (including by funders).
The words we use to describe ourselves, our work and our communities can be personal, political, and can change over time. A best practice approach respects and uses the terms that a group or individual uses to describe themselves.
Often, the words we use are not as important as the work we do. As US activist Lawrence Carter-Long writers, “Person first. Person last. Doesn’t much matter. What we’ve got to do is make sure the words ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’ – and the people they identify – are in the mix. Somewhere? Anywhere??? No. Every-freaking-where! Nothing without us. Period.”
- Access and Inclusion, Caroline Bowditch in The Relationship is the Project (Brow Books, 2020)
- Say Hello, Carly Findlay (Harper Collins, 2019)
- Growing Up Disabled in Australia (Black Inc, 2021)
- #SayTheWord: Why I’m reclaiming the word ‘disabled’, Jax Jacki Brown on DailyLife.
- People first vs identity first: a discussion about language and disability, Shawn Burns on Croakey
- Reporting it Right: how the Government got it wrong, Stella Young on ABC News
- We’re not here for your inspiration, Stella Young on RampUp
- I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much, Stella Young on TedXSydney
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About the writer
Kate Larsen is a non-disabled activist and ally. She stepped down as CEO of Arts Access Australia because she believes that disability organisations should be run by disabled people. Kate delivers disability equality training in collaboration with Gaelle Mellis.
If your organisation could use some disability equality training, or help with its community engagement or communications plans, feel free to get in touch.