Social Model of (Dis)Ability


Socio-cultural dimensions of perceived learner differences

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible functioning in given context
  • Knowing is … adequate functioning in given context
  • Learner is … agent-coupled-to-context
  • Learning is … adapting; maintaining fitness
  • Teaching is … engaging diversity in productive ways




Contrasted with the dominant “medical model” of Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories, which locates perceived academic strengths and weakness in the individual learner, the Social Model of (Dis)Ability considers social and cultural contexts in the identification and valuation of differences. It does this in regard to both the academic definitions of (dis)abilities – i.e., casting them as situational advantages or disadvantages – and the pragmatic realities for those persons identified as differently abled in specific contexts – e.g., with regard to systemic barriers, pervasive attitudes, and other structures of inclusion/exclusion and judgment. Within the Social Model of (Dis)Ability, terms such as “impairment,” “functional limitation,” and “differently abled” are preferred to “disability,” as they are useful for calling attention to the roles played by the broader situation in selecting those traits that are seen as advantages and disadvantages.


There is a popular, but unfortunate tendency to equate the Social Model of (Dis)Ability with political correctness. Social Model of (Dis)Ability looks well beyond the concerns around labelling that are associated with of political correctness, as it attends to practical and immediate actions. For example, among Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories (i.e., those associated with a medical model), a learner who has trouble parsing speech sounds and relating them to symbols might be labeled “dyslexic” and given focused remediation. With a Social Model of (Dis)Ability, that learner might be given similar support while being afforded access to tools that enable functioning in symbol-heavy contexts.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

While grounded in critical and ecological discourses on learning, the Social Model of (Dis)Ability is more an application of principles of learning than a redescription of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While not explicitly a discourse on teaching, the Social Model of (Dis)Ability has immediate and practical implications for structuring educational experiences.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The Social Model of (Dis)Ability is meets our criteria for a scientific discourse. In particular, it is profoundly attentive to grounding metaphors. It is associated with a modest, but rapidly expanding base of empirical support. At the same time, in some contexts, when deployed uncritically, it appears at risk of devolving into an ineffectual populist discourse.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Social Model of (Dis)Ability” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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