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Today’s lesson covers the theoretical models of disability, as defined by the CPACC exam prep materials. These are pretty straight forward, so I’ll just give some quick definitions.


  1. Medical Model of Disability: Assumes the person’s medical condition is a problem to be solved and that their mind, body, or condition is the obstacle to overcome.
  2. Social Model of Disability: Assumes that society’s structure is a problem to be solved and that the biases, built environment, and availability of materials is the obstacle to overcome.
  3. Biopsychosocial Model of Disability: Integrates the best of both the medical and social models and recognizes that solutions have to be as multifaceted as the problems themselves.
  4. Economic Model of Disability: Focuses only on whether a person’s disability disqualifies them from participating in the workforce.
  5. Functional Solutions Model of Disability: Instead of fixating on the sociopolitical aspects of disability, this model prioritizes inventiveness, creativity, and entrepreneurship.
  6. Social Identity of Cultural Affiliation Model of Disability: Assumes that a person draws strength from the community of people who share their disability.
  7. Charity Model of Disability: Assumes disabled people are all in constant need of help from able-bodied people and incapable of doing anything for themselves without assistance.


Here is how each model would approach a staircase, for example.

The medical model of disability would assume that the person cannot climb the stairs because they cannot stand and walk up each step independently. So the solution would be to invent a wheelchair that can climb the stairs.

The social model of disability would assume that the person cannot ascend to the next floor because stairs are not a universally designed way of providing access to another floor. So the solution would be to provide various options such as a ramp and elevator to allow the person to get to the next floor and to make sure that regulations and funding are readily available to make it happen.

I’m not 100% sure how to properly define or give an example of this model… The biopsychosocial model of disability would assume that the stairs present a barrier for a variety a reasons depending on the unique needs of the individual that may or may not have to do with the existence of steps or the condition or existence of the person’s legs. The issue could be multilayered such as a lack of clear signage directing people to the ramps and elevators.

The economic model of disability would allow employers to get away with only accommodating wheelchair users in non-retail buildings where the employer thinks that wheelchair users can be gainfully employed.

The functional solutions model of disability would encourage interesting, but possibly illogical, innovations to eliminate the barrier presented by the staircase. This might include a remote work option that makes the stairs no longer an issue, although it could create other unintended isolation issues.

I’m not sure how the social identity or cultural affinity model of disability could be applied to staircases. Perhaps by not building the office with stairs at all and making the entire space with wheelchair users in mind every step of the way?

The charity model of disability would assume that stairs are an impossible barrier to overcome and the only solution is something inanely silly such as having some people carry other people up the stairs as a permanent solution.

Additional Reading:

The World Health Organization (WHO) released The ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) in 2001. The short version of this new classification is that it puts various disabilities on equal footing with one another. The flu and depression are put on equal footing as temporary issues that might prevent someone from reporting to work on any given day. 20+ years later, there is definitely a new respect for mental health being a very real thing that requires accommodations and not something to just “get over.”


I can definitely see the danger of fixating on just one model or another. It would be very easy to let your ego or laziness drive you to prioritize one approach. Forcing your team to view obstacles from a wide range of perspectives drastically improves your chances of coming up with a viable solution. I think a mix of the social model and functional model would consistently yield the best results because it demands input from members of the population you are attempting to help and encourages creativity in the solutions.

I’m imagining a scenario where users are the inventors, and their creativity is the only limit to the solutions they can come up with. As the end-users of their solutions, they are far less likely to come up with nonsense innovations that only look good to people who never have to use them. I am thinking of those silly gloves that would allow a computer or phone to read out the letters that someone is fingerspelling. I don’t understand how that would be helpful to anyone in any scenario. If you are going to spell everything out while hooked up to a device, why not just type it out on the screen??? A robust machine translation solution would have to respect the intricacy and nuance of signed languages to even begin to approach usefulness.

I did very well on the quiz so, on to the next chapter!