Approaches to disability

Approaches to disability

It is important for donors to understand and recognise the models and approaches to disability that may be reflected in different development settings and legislative or policy frameworks.

As the Preamble to the UNCRPD notes in paragraph (e), disability is an evolving concept. Globally there have been changes in the way society has understood and responded to disability.

Historically, several approaches to disability have prevailed:

  • A medical model which has focused on the need for health treatment and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities in order to enable them to meet societal norms and 'fit' into society. Medical and welfare professionals are seen as 'experts' on disability and thus persons with disabilities themselves often have limited decision making power.
  • A charity model which sees persons with disabilities as passive recipients of welfare and 'help', and can emphasise the segregation of persons with disabilities from mainstream community life in order to care for them.

Both of these approaches are disempowering of persons with disabilities, and fail to take into account the need to address the disabling impact of barriers that exist in society's broader systems and structures.

  • The social model, in its purest form, places the emphasis purely on the disabling physical, policy and attitudinal barriers that exist in society and disable a person with an impairment.

Disability inclusive development should take a rights based approach. This incorporates social model thinking where external barriers are identified in conjunction with persons with disabilities being the focal point in the attainment of their rights

  • A rights based approach emphasises the dignity and worth of persons with disabilities, their rights to access all life opportunities on an equal basis with others, and their role as active participants in their own development. This approach is reflected in the UNCRPD which defines persons with disabilities as encompassing "those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others." (emphasis added).

American Psychological Association Choosing Words for Talking about Disability

This page provides guidance for why, how and what terminology is used for disability. This page will clarify the distinction of person-first and identity-first language. There are 6 small sections: • Defining Disability and Handicap • Putting People First • Identity-first Language for Disability • Disability Community Perspectives • Words Matter: What to DO • Suggested Readings.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Articles 3 and Article 4 set out the general principles and obligations of the UNCRPD which are helpful principles and obligations to guide and inform policy and programming.

WHO (2002) Towards a common language for functioning, disability and health: ICF

This introductory guide explains the WHO conceptual framework the International Classification for Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). This framework takes into account both the impairment related aspects of disability as well as contextual factors, (environmental factors, such as barriers, and personal factors, such as age, gender). It has been described as the ‘bio-psycho-social approach’. Whilst the UNCRPD provides a conceptualisation of disability, it purposely does not definitively define or operationalise it, noting that it is an evolving concept. The ICF provides a standard language and operational framework that is utilised to guide clinical practice, disability measurement, research and policy development by the WHO as well as a number of other agencies. For example, the ICF was used as a conceptual framework within the WHO and World Bank (2011) World Report on Disability. The ICF predates the UNCRPD and does not refer to human rights of persons with disabilities.

World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (2008) Psychosocial disability

This position paper describes the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry’s preferred terminology to describe persons with psychosocial disabilities, including its position on the use of the more commonly known term ‘mental illness’.

CBM (2012) Inclusion made easy: A quick program guide to disability in development – Part A

This practical guide provides broad programming guidance for disability inclusive development. It is targeted at program personnel in development organisations. Page 2 summarises the different approaches to disability, and explains their relevance to disability inclusive development.

UNICEF/Victor Pineda Foundation (2009) It’s about ability: A learning guide on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

This learning guide is a companion to It's about ability: An explanation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, written to help children to understand the UNCRPD. It contains learning activities and fact sheets to explain the UNCRPD in simple language. Pages 8-25 provide simple explanations of differing approaches to disability, including a rights based approach.

People with Disabilities Australia (PWDA) Language used by PWDA

This web page published by PWDA, an Australian Organisation for People with Disabilities (OPD), providing recommended terminology and language on disability.

Disability Advocacy Resource Unit (DARU). eLearning: Human Rights Model of Disability

In this course you will: - Explain the concept of human rights - Introduce the human rights model of disability and how it advances the rights of people with disability - Explain how the human rights model builds on and extends the social model of disability - Explain some of the key differences between the human rights model and the social model of disability - Explain why the medical and charitable models of disability are not consistent with human rights principles.

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Picture of an advocacy poster produced by the National Disability Resource and Advocacy Centre, Papua New Guinea. The poster shows a man sitting in a wheelchair in profile. The poster reads "Your ignorance is our disability; Do not judge us by our disability".

Photo: Travelling together project.

Advocacy poster from the National Disability Resource and Advocacy Centre (NDRAC), Papua New Guinea, highlighting the impact of stigma against persons with disabilities. NDRAC is a small NGO which advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities in PNG, and serves as a national focal point on disability issues within the country. Copyright: NDRAC