The social and human rights models of disability: towards a complementarity thesis

Anna Lawson, Angharad E. Beckett
2020 International Journal of Human Rights  
This article aims to reorient thinking about the relationship between the long-standing social model of disability and the rapidly emerging human rights model. In particular, it contests the influential view that the latter develops and improves upon the former (the improvement thesis) and argues instead that the two models are complementary (the complementarity thesis). The article begins with a discursive analysis of relevant documents to investigate how each of the two models has been used
more » ... els has been used in the crafting and monitoring of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This highlights the increasing importance of the human rights model in this policy context. It also provides examples of the operation of the two models which inform the remainder of the discussion. We then critique the comparisons between the models which underpin the improvement thesis; and, drawing on Foucault's technologies of power and Beckett and Campbell's 'oppositional device' methodology, deepen and develop this comparative analysis. The result, we argue, is that the two models have different subjects and different functions. In the human rights context, their roles are complementary and supportive. ARTICLE HISTORY earlier, the UK-based organisation Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) described 'disability' as a form of oppression and as 'something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society'. 3 From a social model perspective, disability is therefore viewed as a socially produced injustice which it is possible to challenge and eliminate through radical social change. Oliver acknowledged that, when introducing the phrase the 'social model of disability' in the early 1980s, he was drawing upon the distinction originally made between impairment and disability by UPIAS. 4 He helpfully distinguished this social model understanding of disability from an array of traditional approaches which he classified, collectively, as the 'individual model of disability' and which he described as 'locat[ing] the "problem" of disability within the individual and ... see[ing] the causes of this problem as stemming from the functional limitations or psychological losses which are assumed to arise from disability'. 5 Since the early 1980s, the social model has generated a wealth of literature which crosses geographical and disciplinary divides. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, there are now significant inconsistencies in its articulation and usage. 6 The consequent potential for confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the term is often used without an accompanying explanation of exactly how it is understood by the particular author. 7 Miller is therefore unlikely to be alone in his view that using the social model as an evaluative framework is 'a path fraught with difficulties'. 8 In an attempt to provide some clarity about our own use of the terminology, we will use the term 'social model' here to refer to the approach of UPIAS and DPI set out above and, where necessary, differentiate it from other usage of the phrase by describing it as the UPIAS/DPI version of the social model. An array of alternatives to the social model has emerged over the past three decades. In the context of human rights law and policy, by far the most important and influential of these is the human rights model of disability. According to one of the earliest explanations: The human rights model focuses on the inherent dignity of the human being and subsequently, but only if necessary, on the person's medical characteristics. It places the individual centre stage in all decisions affecting him/her and, most importantly, locates the main 'problem' outside the person and in society. 9 12 A
doi:10.1080/13642987.2020.1783533 fatcat:s7yvxi4acvhf3aehz7mucfh2ya