Whether you are one of the roughly 27% of Americans that are disabled according to the CDC, you know someone who is disabled, or even if your only personal experience with disabilities is through reading, movies, or the news, there’s a good chance you’ve heard someone with a disability say something along the lines of, “I’m not disabled by my body, I’m disabled by society.” This idea of one’s physical or psychological differences not being inherently disabling, but a result of society that is not built for those differences, is a concept that stems from disability rights advocacy and has become increasingly mainstream in the last several decades. However, it wasn’t always the predominant way of thinking about disability, and other models of viewing disability have also been highly impactful on our culture over time. That’s why for this Disability Pride Month post, I want to spend a bit of time talking about how society views disabilities, how it has changed over time, and what impacts this has on present day disabled communities.

Disabilities themselves are not new and people have been born with disabilities or became disabled during their lifetimes since humans existed. One of the most common ways of viewing disabilities and disabled people throughout history, but especially before the rise of modern medicine, was through what is now called the Moral Model of Disability. The Moral Model argues that a disability is a moral judgement, either good or bad, about the person with the disability. Research has shown that some cultures believed disability to be a positive moral quality, such as some historical communities in West Africa that saw it as a blessing from the gods; while others argued it was a moral challenge, like some sects of Christianity that believe disability is a test of their faith. But overwhelmingly throughout history, the Moral Model has been used to argue that the person with a disability was bad, unjust, or otherwise deserving of their disability as punishment. Although this is not the only (or even the predominant) lens that we view disability through today, it still heavily impacts our popular culture, from disabled people in media most often depicted as either villains or saint-like figures, to communities that refuse medical treatment for illness and disability due to their religious faith.

Over the last few centuries with the rise of modern medicine and science, another model rose into the mainstream called the Medical Model of Disability. Medical organizations and journals usually describe the Medical Model as viewing disability as an illness, injury, or otherwise a medical condition to be fixed (which you read more about here). This lens arose in conjunction with modern medical testing, prescriptions, and more. Doctors and researchers began to seek out treatment or cures for many illnesses and other causes of disabilities, from the polio vaccine to the creation of prosthetics. This model’s goal was to bring disabled people closer in line with “normal,” healthy members of society, and it can commonly be seen in books, movies, and other media where joyful representation of disabled people is often tied to them being cured or otherwise “overcoming” their disability. This is a very real experience for many who have benefited from the cures that modern medicine has found, but it neglects the disabled people who either can’t or don’t want to be cured. It also places the responsibility of fitting into society on the disabled individual, which many argue contribute to ostracization and ableism.

In response to the gaps present in the Medical Model and the various civil rights movements during the 1950s to 1970s, a new way of viewing disability has gained popularity called the Social Model of Disability. The Social Model argues that, like the example at the beginning of this post, the reason a disabled person is impeded from fully participating in society is because of society itself, not the physical or mental impairment. To use an example with Deaf communities, this model would argue that if the average person knew sign language, Deaf people would not face the communication barriers that are present today (for more examples, check out this article!). This has become a common view regarding disability of all types, but particularly for mobility related disabilities as well as mental or psychological diagnoses like ADHD, autism, and other forms of neurodiversity. This outlook focuses the need for “fixing” on society itself rather than the individuals and has led to improvements like ramps in public places, braille on building signage, accessible parking spaces, and much more – allowing disabled communities to participate in public life, with or without pursuing treatment or cures. Even so, some disabled communities strongly dislike the social model alone, arguing that conditions that cause things like chronic pain would be inherently disabling even if society was structured with them in mind.

The result of these shifts in thinking about disability has led to a society that shows evidence of all three models in our daily lives, from media representation and pop culture to our approach towards medicine, and even legislation. While there are other models that fall under the umbrella of these approaches, most have been used throughout history to create more inclusion for those with disabilities, which we can continue to strive towards as individuals, at the library, and in our communities. If you’d like to learn more about different trends and views towards disabilities over time this Disability Pride Month, consider checking out a title from this list.