Framing Disability

It is important to examine the ways we frame disability in higher education. The University of Arizona’s 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 collaborate with campus partners to influence a more accessible and inclusive campus.

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. Our goal is to create accessible, equitable and welcoming environments for all students, employees, and campus visitors. We present the following models by which to understand disability and to inform our work.

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 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

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.