Social model or medical model? How to implement one or the other in a group home setting

Graduate social work students at Salem State University were asked to reflect on the ways in which they approach their work with clients with disabilities. Specifically, they were asked to reflect on what aspects of their practice were “under” the medical model of disability and which were “under” the social model of disability. Students were first introduced to the medical model of disability, in which the person’s impairment was the focus. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to the part of the person with the impairment. In order to begin to re-visualize what social work practice with a client with a disability would look like, students were asked to answer the following question:

“How can social workers approach the needs of people with disabilities without perpetuating the negative impacts associated with the medical model of disability? Provide a case example and then describe how you could/do/would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Daniel Fraser, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

Where I work at a group home for people with intellectual disabilities, we have a client, who for the purposes of this discussion, will be referred to as H.I. Several years ago, H.I. began to feel uncomfortable standing or walking on her own, or with a walker. She feared she will fall and hurt herself.  A wheelchair was provided for her, as a way to make her feel more comfortable with her mobility.  However, staff were encouraged to get H.I. to stand up and walk with assistance of a walker, instead of allowing her to remain in the wheelchair on a full-time basis.  Each time a staff member would attempt to encourage her to stand up and walk with assistance of a walker, H.I. would become upset, and refuse to attempt to stand up. It is noteworthy that H.I. is able to transfer herself from her wheelchair to other locations, such as a recliner, her bed, or even the toilet, but that is the extent to which she feels comfortable enough to stand on her own.

When I first started working at the home, the director tried to implement a plan where H.I. was supposed to transfer herself from the toilet seat to the shower seat, each time she went to take a shower (she needs full assistance in taking a shower).  Each time staff went to implement this protocol, it caused a great deal of stress for H.I., and she would refuse to take a shower.

Taking the social model approach, it would have been better for all of the staff members, the director included, to talk to H.I., and find out whether she would rather use her wheelchair to get around, or if she would rather try walking with the walker.  By doing this, we would effectively eliminate the barrier of using a walker or walking on her own, that separates H.I. from the mobility which she chooses (Shakespeare, 2006).  Allowing H.I. to choose the way that she would prefer to move around would also give her more of a sense of independence, and make her feel the power of being able to make her own decisions.  Discussing her option of mobility would also likely take away any behavioral consequences that resulted from staff trying to implement the protocol of having her stand up and walk when she does not feel comfortable doing so.

By taking the approach that was implemented by the director, we were taking part in medical model thinking.  I believe that according to disability studies writer Tom Shakespeare, by not giving H.I. the choice of using the wheelchair to move around, and also by trying to get her to walk from the toilet seat to the shower seat, we were in essence, trying to eliminate an aspect of her disability, in order to fit in with what we wanted for her instead (2006).  By taking this approach, we also encouraged the behavioral consequence that resulted, along with adding more stress to an already stressful situation for H.I.

It is argued that one of the main limitations of the social model is that it essentially further disables someone who is already disabled, by not properly identifying the disability (Shakespeare, 2006).  By doing this, we are taking away part of the person’s identity, and more or less telling the person that even though they may have a disability, they should not recognize that disability.  In the case of H.I., if we do not encourage her to at least attempt to stand up and walk on her own, or with the assistance of the walker, it could lead to much less leg functioning, which could further impair her functioning.  So essentially, by not encouraging H.I. to move around without the assistance of a walker, and just continue to use the wheelchair, we could potentially be further disabling her.

It is a complicated situation, but it helps to look at H.I.’s situation through several lenses!

Shakespeare, T. (2013). The social model of disability. In Ed., Davis, L. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader, Fourth Edition. New York: Routledge.

Daniel Fraser is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. He holds a B.A. in Social Work from Salem State University. He hopes to do clinical work with students who have varying degrees of cognitive and intellectual disabilities with his career. Mr. Fraser has always enjoyed helping people out, and since joining his current place of employment, has really found his niche, where he can help people, and advocate for independence within the disability community. Mr. Fraser can be reached at d_fraser2@salemstate.edu.

Moving beyond “fixing” people: Social work practice with people with disabilities

Graduate social work students in Dr. Elspeth Slayter’s courses at Salem State University were asked to reflect on the ways in which they approach their work with clients with disabilities. Specifically, they were asked to reflect on what aspects of their practice were “under” the medical model of disability and which were “under” the social model of disability. Students were first introduced to the medical model of disability, in which the person’s impairment was the focus. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to the part of the person with the impairment. In order to begin to re-visualize what social work practice with a client with a disability would look like, students were asked to answer the following question:

“How can social workers approach the needs of people with disabilities without perpetuating the negative impacts associated with the medical model of disability? Provide a case example and then describe how you could/do/would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Ndia Olivier, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

Working on a boarding high-school campus, I have the opportunity to be exposed to different students. During my first year, one student, in particular, stood out. J.M. was a breakout basketball star and had dreams of going to the N.B.A. Unfortunately, in his junior year, he was in a terrible car accident and as a result was paralyzed from the waist down. Everyone on campus was affected by his accident because J.M. was such a bright presence on campus and when he came back, he was a different person. He was less interactive on campus and lost his love for basketball.

The adults who were working with him every day were so fixated on the medical model, they wanted to “fix” him as much as they could so he could be ‘normal’ again. They suggested to his mom to take him to the best doctors who specialize helping people who are paraplegic learn to walk through virtual reality. They were not focused on his direct needs because they did not ask him, and that was detrimental to his recovery.

In using the social-model informed practice, the adults working with J.M. should have discussed with him how he saw his recovery going. By placing the focus on him rather than his disability, J.M.’s confidence in recovering could have been more positive than negative. Disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare discusses the importance of focusing on the individual and not the impairment in order to create a confident space (Shakespeare, 2016).

One of the limits in the social model approach, however, is the idea that individuals with disabilities should disregard their impairments. More specifically, it is stated that “the social model so strongly disowns individual and medical approaches, that it risks implying that impairment is not a problem (Shakespeare, 2016 p. 218)”.

The medical model is helpful when we are utilizing action practices that are suggested by the person with the disability and not the people around them who are looking at it like a problem that needs to be corrected. As social workers, it will only benefit the clients we are working with if we are their advocates and find a balance between the medical model and the social model.

Shakespeare, T. (2013). The social model of disability. In Ed., Davis, L. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader, Fourth Edition. New York: Routledge.

Ndia Olivier
This is Ndia Olivier, an MSW candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. (Note for Screenreaders: Image shows a confident Black woman in a yellow dress who is smiling and standing in front of a river)

Ndia Olivier is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from College of the Holy Cross. She hopes to do create change and be an advocate for the voiceless with this career. She wanted to study social work practice with people with disabilities to learn about a population she was unfamiliar with. She is striving to be a well-rounded social worker and learning about one of the minority groups in our society and becoming more self-aware, is key. Ms. Olivier can be reached at ndia.olivier@gmail.com.

“Letting” people who are non-verbal communicate in their own way: A challenge for social work practice

Graduate social work students in Dr. Elspeth Slayter’s courses at Salem State University were asked to reflect on the ways in which they approach their work with clients with disabilities. Specifically, they were asked to reflect on what aspects of their practice were “under” the medical model of disability and which were “under” the social model of disability. Students were first introduced to the medical model of disability, in which the person’s impairment was the focus. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to the part of the person with the impairment. In order to begin to re-visualize what social work practice with a client with a disability would look like, students were asked to answer the following question:

“How can social workers approach the needs of people with disabilities without perpetuating the negative impacts associated with the medical model of disability? Provide a case example and then describe how you could/do/would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Kasey Soucy, MSW Candidate
Salem State University

While working at a disability group home agency, I came to know“ Jane,” a person with Rett Syndrome. Jane was non-verbal and was unable to walk independently. She used a specialized walker to move around. In addition, she developed her own sign language in order to communicate. During the day, Jane would attend a day program. That program gave all nonverbal clients computers that had the “Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)” system on it. Jane was required to use it at the day program and was also encouraged to continue using it at the group home. Jane would take home the computer, but she would leave it in her bedroom. She did this because she didn’t like it, and was comfortable with her own form of communication. The day program became insistent on Jane using the computer at home, so the director asked Jane to use it. Jane refused to use the computer and threw it across the room because she was so upset about being asked to do so. The day program still required Jane to use the computer so she would comply, however once she was in her home she didn’t use it and the staff did not force her to do so.

As a social worker, and using what I know now from this course, I would first ask whether Jane wanted to use the PECS system. When disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare was discussing the social model of disability, he pointed out the idea of this practice is to make society adapt to people with disabilities. This could include allowing for people’s own communication choice to be honored or it could include providing accommodations like the PECS system for non-verbal clients. One of the barriers of the social model (Shakespeare, 2006, p. 219) is trying to make accommodations for people with disabilities without choice. The PECS system might work well for one client who is non-verbal, but it did not suit Jane and she did not want to use it. Shakespeare described limitations with the social model-informed practice as assuming there could be a “utopia” for people with disabilities as there would be no barriers. People with disabilities do not all function or adapt the same way so it is unrealistic to be able to accommodate everyone and it is insulting to force accommodations on people with disabilities if they do not want to utilize that specific accommodation. If Jane was given the option to use or not use the PECS system then that would still be utilizing the social model-informed practice because society is making the change for her and not expecting her to change. By forcing the PECS system on Jane, it is reverting back to the medical model practice because the program is making Jane adjust instead of learning Jane’s sign language.

Jane also used a specialized walker. I would engage in medical model-informed practice by acknowledging it was Jane’s body part that was impaired, and therefore disabled her. This is another limit of the social model-informed practice. As Shakespeare (2006, p. 218), the social model-informed practice is so focused on society being the barrier that it does not always acknowledge that a person’s body can also be the barrier. The medical model-informed practice is what helped Jane receive the specialized walker because Jane’s body was the barrier and she wanted to walk as independently as she could. The social model-informed practice can also be used by ensuring there are ramps for Jane so she can have easy accessibility.

From the macro level of social work, I believe we are on the right track with the social-model informed practice, however as Shakespeare (2006) pointed out on page 220, this model is not complex enough to include everyone. Intersectionality does not seem to be taken in to consideration with this model, which is a complicating factor. A strong model needs to be developed to acknowledge the complexities of people and their disabilities. A person’s environment, gender, race and other social identities need to be considered when developing models (which was not the case since the group of activists who rallied for this model were white heterosexual men (Shakespeare, 2006, p. 217)). The first step to be taken by every social worker should be to ask the person with the disability “what can be done to support you?” or “what do you believe needs to be changed so you do not continue to feel oppressed or feel like your voice is not being heard?”

Shakespeare, T. (2013). The social model of disability. In Ed., Davis, L. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader, Fourth Edition. New York: Routledge.

Kasey A Soucy
This is Kasey A Soucy, an MSW candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. (Note for Screenreaders: Image shows a confident White woman in a beige sweater who is smiling and standing in front of a forest)

Kasey Soucy is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from Salem State University. She hopes to continue her career with the Department of Children and Families. Ms. Soucy chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities so she can have a better understanding with the clients she works with. She also wants to work with her agency in providing a more inclusive solution for working with people with disabilities. Ms. Soucy can be reached at k_soucy@salemstate.edu.