How the Social Model of Disability shapes our understanding of neurodiversity

One of the biggest barriers for people with a disability is how society views disability, not the ‘disability’ itself. This could be because society's current understanding of disability is primarily based on the Medical Model of Disability, which defines a disabled person based on their limitations. That is, the problem lies within the individual's impairment. 

In contrast, the Social Model of Disability sees the challenges of living with a disability as primarily a result of people with various needs and abilities living in a world that is built for one kind of ability only. This tension between the needs of the individual and the world we live in can lead to physical barriers but also includes social, attitudinal, and communication barriers. 

For example, according to the Medical Model, people who have difficulty accessing buildings with stairs do so because of their physical impairment. In contrast, The Social Model would see the difficulty arising out of the fact the building caters to some people and not others. The issue is with the building, not the individual.

In the words of Mike Oliver, a sociologist who became the first professor of disability studies, “The problem isn’t that I can’t get into a lecture theatre, the problem is that the lecture theatre isn’t accessible to me.” Lecture theatres are built for human needs, not the other way around.

The medical model is generally a reflection of how society views people with disabilities, whereas the social model generally reflects how the disability community sees themselves. 

The table below outlines key distinctions between the medical and social models in approaching disability.

It is important to note that impairments, various needs, and chronic illness, often impose real difficulties, but according to the social model of disability, they are not the main problem in society. 

The Neurodiversity Model

Similar to the Social Model of Disability, the Neurodiversity Model sees neurodiversity as part of the biology of our species due to normal biological variation, rather than neurotypical as normal or better, and neurodivergent as a deficit or pathology. Neurodivergent (ND) people experience difficulties in our society as most environments are geared towards neurotypicals, for example, people are expected to be able to work in a full-time 9am-5pm job and focus throughout. ND people experience fewer difficulties when their environment (their home, learning environment, work, culture etc.) is a better fit for them. In these environments ND people seem less “severe” and more “high functioning.”

Why is neurodiversity on the rise?

According to the neurodiverse model, so many people are ND because it’s part of natural biodiversity. Additionally, as a society are getting better at understanding the internal ND experience, and therefore are identifying people who mask well that would have previously been missed. For example, previously it was thought that ADHD resolves at age 18, whereas we now know this is not true and that in adulthood coping skills and masking tend to increase. We now also know that women, girls, and AFAB (assigned-female-at-birth) tend to experience inattentiveness to ADHD which is less of a problem/inconvenience to others and therefore tends to be undiagnosed.

Key Points

It is important that we shift our understanding of disability and neurodiversity way from deficit thinking and towards the understanding that:

  1. Impairments can negatively affect people’s life, but a significant number of impairments can be resolved through changes in attitudes, social expectations, communication barriers, and physical access
  2. Neurodiversity is a result of natural variation in the species and not a deficit or pathology
  3. Similar to living with impairments, being neurodivergent can result in challenges, but most of the challenges are a result of attitudes, social expectations, communication norms, and physical spaces being geared towards neurotypical needs. A neuroaffirming environment could resolve most of these challenges
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