Disabled, not Damaged: Applying the Social Model of Disability to Inclusion Initiatives

Jenna Shelton, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Between 2018 and 2019, the prevalence of diversity and inclusion programs in workplaces increased by 8 percentage points. Diversity and inclusion initiatives pervade both the private and public sectors and are emphasized in many policy areas including employment, education, housing, and environmental policy. While the rise of diversity and inclusion programs is a positive step towards the development of more socially conscious policies, certain demographics are still misrepresented or sometimes left out of the discussion entirely: specifically, people with disabilities.

Despite the fact that 20 percent of people in the United States have a disability, there is still progress to be made in involving people with disabilities in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Specifically, policymakers and public institutions can develop disability awareness trainings that 1) foster inclusion by focusing on the social model of disability and 2) avoid exercises that research suggests could be counterproductive.

Social and Medical Models of Disability

There are two dominant social theories that frame how society responds to people with disabilities: the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. Scholars and disability rights activists developed the social model of disability, which specifies that the “problem” is not with the person experiencing the disability but with the exclusionary environment and society’s perception of impairments as a hindrance. The social model focuses on removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in community spaces with able-bodied people.

Conversely, the medical model of disability—the dominant response to disability in our current society— views disability as a hindrance. According to this model, the problem is not societal barriers, but rather the disability or the person with a disability. The medical model champions medical interventions as solutions for the disability “problem”. Under this framework, people with disabilities are denied value and individuality because they do not meet the accepted physical, behavioral, or cognitive norms of society.

How the Medical Model of Disability Pervades Diversity and Inclusion Trainings

Popular disability awareness trainings conduct hour-long disability simulation exercises in which training participants enact life as a disabled person using assistive devices. For example, participants put on blindfolds and use low-vision canes to navigate streets and sidewalks. Other exercises ask that  participants use wheelchairs and put on low-vision goggles and earbuds to simulate visual, ambulatory, and hearing impairments. The goal of simulation exercises is to build empathy for people with disabilities. While these exercises are well-intentioned, they are inappropriate for the following reasons.

  1. Simulation exercises are ineffective: One study in the journal of Rehabilitative Psychology Studies found that while the simulations do make participants feel kinder towards people with disabilities, there are many negative consequences of such simulations, including increased feelings of pity towards and discomfort around individuals with disabilities. A study in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found that a brief blindness simulation influenced how people without visual impairments negatively judged the capability of people with visual impairments. While more research is needed, multiple studies suggest that disability simulations may disempower people with disabilities and have opposite intended impacts. 

2. Simulation exercises are exclusionary. When diversity and inclusion training includes a disability simulation, the trainers are assuming that participants are not people with disabilities. People with disabilities may not want to or may not be able to participate in these activities because they may have a disability already and do not feel comfortable in the space.

3. Simulation exercises may perpetuate ableism. Disability is a facet of identity similar to gender, race, or sexual orientation. It is prejudiced to imitate people based on stereotypes of identity; imitation may perpetuate these stereotypes. Simulation exercises can also frame the use of accommodations and assistive devices (such as canes, braces, and wheelchairs, etc.) as a hindrance rather than a tool that supports individual agency and independence. While simulation exercises do demonstrate dynamics of privilege between able-bodied and disabled individuals and can be insightful for participants, an hour of pretending to be a disabled person can provide a false impression of living with a disability.

Using the Social Model to Design More Inclusive Diversity Training

Participants in disability and inclusion trainings can still glean meaningful lessons without imitating disability. For example, disability and inclusion workshops can reinforce inclusive policies by facilitating exercises in which participants accompany disabled people throughout their town to observe physical barriers. Additionally, trainings can bring in people with disabilities to discuss their own lived experience with confronting social and attitudinal barriers to accessibility and receiving accommodations, reflecting the social model of disability.Additionally, diversity trainings can incorporate small group discussions on the portrayal of people with disabilities in society using media and inaccessible infrastructure, such as stairs and lack of tactile signals as talking points.  

To combat the stigma around disability and determine effective policy solutions that support intersectional diversity and inclusion, individuals and institutions  need to be willing to participate in discussions of disability framed by the social model and informed and led by people with disabilities. As inclusion trainings act as implementation tools for diversity and inclusion policies, trainings need to emphasize that excluding people with disabilities is discrimination rather than attempting to emulate the experience of living with a disability.

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