DRC facilitates access by determining reasonable accommodations or by redesigning aspects of a University experience to be inclusive of all participants. We work with individuals in response to specific requests and we also work proactively with campus partners to influence a more accessible and inclusive campus. It is important to examine the ways we frame disability in higher education.
To inform our work together, we present the following models by which to understand disability. Informed by disability studies, DRC works to move away from understanding disability as an individual deficit in need of curing, fixing, pity or help and toward understanding disability as the result of inaccessible environments. These dynamics play out on campus and in community over and over again. Our goal is to create accessible, equitable and welcoming environments for all students.
The Medical Model
Historically and even today, society conceptualizes disability as a measurable limitation in function linked to a physiological deficit that prevents a person from performing “normal” tasks. In operationalizing this thinking, we respond with a desire to cure or fix the individual. The medical model, as coined by disability studies, holds that disability is the result of a physiological difference, that the individual is the problem, in need of intervention or a cure (Swain, French, & Cameron, 2003).
The Tragedy Model
Related to the medical model, is the tragedy or charity model, which holds that because of their physiological difference, disabled people are in need of help, pity, or prayer; disability remains an individual’s problem. Because our societal standards for disability are so low, we frame disabled people as inspirational for doing ordinary things. We objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people, an emerging concept called “inspiration porn.” Positioning disabled individuals as objects of inspiration may be well-intended but reinforces lower standards for disabled people by celebrating how they have risen above our very low societal expectations.
The Compliance Model
While disability has a strong legal foundation in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), compliance requires accessibility, not equity. When we understand disability access as merely a compliance issue by responding to barriers retroactively and individually, we miss a great opportunity to ensure that disabled individuals have a similar, if not identical, experience in community and on campus to that of their non-disabled peers.
The Social Model
The social model of disability frames disability as a product of design; environments are designed to disable or exclude people with impairments (Shakespeare, T., 1997, 2012). When we shift the attention off of the individual and on to the environment, we can begin to appreciate the far-reaching implications of how we systemically disadvantage those with impairments by creating environments or policies that necessitate individual accommodations for access that non-disabled people simply get.
Universal design (UD) presents valuable strategies by which to operationalize the social model. A universally-designed experience is usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for individual adjustments. Identifying and removing barriers to access proactively may result in enhanced participation and engagement for all and minimize the need for individual accommodations.