Medical model of disability

The medical model of disability, or medical model, arose from the biomedical perception of disability. This model links a disability diagnosis to an individual's physical body. The model supposes that this disability may reduce the individual's quality of life and the aim is, with medical intervention, this disability will be diminished or corrected.[1]

The medical model focuses on curing or managing illness or disability. By extension, the medical model supposes a "compassionate" or just society invests resources in health care and related services in an attempt to cure or manage disabilities medically. This is in an aim to expand functionality and/or improve functioning, and to allow disabled persons a more "normal" life. The medical profession's responsibility and potential in this area is seen as central.


Before the introduction of the biomedical model, patients relaying their narratives to the doctors was paramount. Through these narratives and developing an intimate relationship with the patients, the doctors would develop treatment plans in a time when diagnostic and treatment options were limited.[2] This could particularly be illustrated with aristocratic doctors treating the elite during the 17th and 18th century.[3]

The reliance of doctors on the narratives of patients diminished with the growth of bio-medicine.[4]

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced a framework for working with disability, publishing the "International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps." The framework proposed to approach disability by using the terms Impairment, Handicap and Disability.[5]

  • Impairment = a loss or abnormality of physical bodily structure or function, of logic-psychic origin, or physiological or anatomical origin
  • Disability = any limitation or function loss deriving from impairment that prevents the performance of an activity in the time lapse considered normal for a human being
  • Handicap = the disadvantaged condition deriving from impairment or disability limiting a person performing a role considered normal in respect of age, sex and social and cultural factors

Components and usage

While personal narrative is present in interpersonal interactions, and particularly dominant in Western Culture, personal narrative during interactions with medical personnel is reduced to relaying information about specific symptoms of the disability to medical professionals.[1] The medical professionals then interpret the information provided about the disability by the patient to determine a diagnosis, which likely will be linked to biological causes.[1][2] Medical professionals now define what is "normal" and what is "abnormal" in terms of biology and disability.[3]

In some countries, the medical model of disability has influenced legislation and policy pertaining to persons with disabilities on a national level.[6][7]

The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), published in 2001, defines disability as an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. Disability is the interaction between individuals with a health condition (such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and depression) and personal and environmental factors (such as negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social supports).[8]

The altered language and words used show a marked change in emphasis from talking in terms of disease or impairment to talking in terms of levels of health and functioning. It takes into account the social aspects of disability and does not see disability only as a 'medical' or 'biological' dysfunction. That change is consistent with widespread acceptance of the social model of disability.