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 (Dis)Ability, which locates perceived academic strengths and weakness in the individual learner, the Social Model of (Dis)Ability considers social and cultural contexts alongside Neurodiversity in the identification and valuation of differences. Associated and complementary discourses include:
  • Critical Disability Theory (Critical Disability Studies) (often attributed to Michel Foucault, 1970s) – an umbrella notion that stretches across those perspectives affiliated with the Social Model of (Dis)Ability that attend specifically to the social norms, political ideologies, and cultural-historical conditions that prompted and sustain the stigmatization of some types of bodies and minds
  • Critical Psychology – a blend of Psychology and Critical Theory (see Critical Pedagogy) that begins with the premise that observed pathologies are likely rooted in and/or conditioned by power differentials
  • Dyspedagogia (Teaching Disorder) (S. Alan Cohen, 1970s) – literally “poor teaching” (from dys- + pedagogia “bad pedagogy”), a reference to unscientific teaching practices that may trigger and amplify the sorts of student difficulties that are commonly identified as Learning Disabilities or Learning Disorders (see Medical Model of (Dis)Ability)
  • Health Psychology (Health Care Psychology) – an interdisciplinary field of research and practice that is focused on well-being and effective functioning. Health Psychology is oriented more to the maintenance of favorable conditions than ameliorating negative ones as looks across matters of one’s physical condition, one’s relationships, one’s occupations, and one’s sociocultural situatedness.
  • Pediatric Psychology – an interdisciplinary field of research and practice that is concerned with the well-being and effective functioning of children. Rejecting the psychopathological attitudes and assumptions of the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability, Pediatric Psychology incorporates developmental growth, cultural situatedness, social influence, and other principles of the Social Model of (Dis)Ability.
  • Sociogenic Hypothesis – the proposition that social conditions are the principal cause of cognitive and behavioral disorders
  • Special Education (Exceptional Education) – formal schooling structures intended to accommodate the particular needs of students with diagnosed learning issues. Most often Special Education involves some manner of segregation. Constructs associated with Special Education include:
    • Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH) – a type of Special Education designed to meet the needs of children and youth with severe emotional and/or behavioral difficulties
    • Special Child – one with Special Needs (see below)
    • Special Needs – mental, physical, and/or emotional issues that disrupt one’s learning. Most Special Needs involve an Intellectual Disability, a Learning Disability, a Learning Disorder, or a Development Disorder (see Medical Model of (Dis)Ability), but in recent decades the construct has been increasingly used to capture financial and other situational impediments.
For the most part, the Social Model of (Dis)Ability is associated with a reframing of the notions of “learning difficulties” and Intelligence:
  • At-Risk (At-Promise)– descriptor applied to students and general populations perceived to have lower probabilities of academic success. The list of underlying reasons is extensive and varied, and it sweeps across matters of the social (e.g., difficulties with peers, systemic racism), familial (e.g., homelessness, domestic violence, poverty), physiological (e.g., health conditions; pregnancy), and psychological (i.e., cognitive and/or motivational).
  • Intelligence – a complex of capacities associated with effective functioning in dynamically evolving contexts (Compare the definition of Intelligence associated with the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability.)
Correspondingly, notions of  of “disabilities” are recast as situational advantages or disadvantage – which, in turn, prompts attentions toward the systemic barriers, pervasive attitudes, and other structures of inclusion/exclusion and judgment that are experienced by those identified as differently abled. 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. Specific examples of such shifts in expression include:
  • Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) (Bessel van der Kolk, 2000s) – a condition rooted in some manner of extreme-but-unresolved trauma that can manifest in a range of emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and social pathologies. Recommended treatments are similarly multifaceted.
  • Material Intelligence (various, 2010s) – a term with multiple, context-specific meanings. Those that appear most relevant to discourses on learning in education are rooted in psychology (in reference to abilities to understand, manipulate, and otherwise exploit physical materials) and robotics (in reference to investing materials with information and processing power, a.k.a. “intelligent materials”).
  • Situated Intelligence – the principle that definitions of intelligence cannot be detached from the contexts of action or application
  • Street Intelligence (Terezhina Nunes, 1990s) – a type of Situated Intelligence associated with skills developed to cope with the demands of everyday life, but that may not correlate with seemingly related academic skills
Such discourses might be seen as moving toward:
  • Field Theory of Intelligence (Loch K. Johnson, 2000s) – a model that frames intelligence as a constantly evolving form which arises in the dynamic interrelations among other personalities that co-inhabit particular social and cultural circumstances
Associated discourses (listed in chronological order, by decade) include:
  • Multiple Intelligences Theory (Howard Gardner, 1980s): a typology of 9 modalities (listed below), asserted to be associated with specific brain areas and domains of human exceptionality. While often associated with Learner Trait Discourses – in particular, the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability and Learning Styles Theories – the fact that Multiple Intelligences takes into consideration the neurological, psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of intelligent action makes it a better fit for the Social Model of (Dis)Ability.
    • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – awareness and control of bodily action, including the ability to manipulate objects with skill and to learn new actions
    • Interpersonal Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – ability to work with and to interpret others, enabled in large part by sensitivity to others’ emotional states, temperaments, and motivations
    • Intrapersonal Intelligence ­(Howard Gardner, 1980s) – capacity for self-awareness, in terms of both immediate self-monitoring and more reflective critical introspection
    • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – competencies associated with deductive logic, abstraction, generalization, quantities, and cause–effect
    • Musical-Rhythmic and Harmonic Intelligence (Musical Intelligence) (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – sensitivity to rhythms, tones, meters, and other qualities of music, often realized in singing, composing, and playing instruments
    • Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence – (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – facility with words and languages, typically manifest in in reading, writing, story-telling, and large vocabularies
    • Visual-Spatial Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – encompasses accuracy of spatial judgments, ability to visualize, and competence with spatial relationships among objects
    • Existential Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1990s) – ability to understand oneself in relation to the smallest and the vastest aspects of the universe
    • Naturalistic Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1990s) – awareness of, sensitivity to, and capacity to maintain harmony with the more-than-human world
  • Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Theory of Successful Intelligence) (Robert Sternberg, 1980s): based on a definition of Successful Intelligence in terms of self-awareness that is fitted to setting and meeting personal goals, a theory of intelligent action comprising three subtheories:
    • Componential Subtheory (Robert Sternberg,1980s) – the aspect of the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence identifying three components of engaging with complex situations: metacomponents (akin to Executive Functions, see Cognitive Processes); performance components (skills employed in decision-making and problem-solving); knowledge-acquisition components (information- and strategy-gathering aspects that enable decision-making and problem-solving). Componential Subtheory is associated with:
      • Analytical Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – abilities to analyze, compare, evaluate, critique, judge, and other skills measured by intelligence tests
    • Experiential Subtheory (Robert Sternberg,1980s) – the aspect of the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence that determines where and how the three components of intelligence (see Componential Subtheory, above) are applied. Experiential Subtheory is associated with:
      • Creative Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – skills associated with creating, inventing, exploring, and imagining
    • Contextual Subtheory (Robert Sternberg,1980s) – the aspect of the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence focused on one’s context, postulating that intelligent action is indexed to one’s ability to select, shape, and/or adapt to one’s environment. Contextual Subtheory is associated with:
      • Practical Intelligence (Everyday Intelligence) (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – ability to apply one’s intelligence in everyday contexts
  • Augmented Theory of Successful Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 1990s) – an elaboration of the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (see above) that includes a fourth kind of skill:
    • Wisdom-Based Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 1990s) – capacity to judge and ensure that pursuit of one’s goals is undertaken ethically and for the common good
  • Bioecological Theory of Intelligence (Stephen Ceci, 1990s) – the suggestion that both biology and context contribute to development of intelligence as co-dependent elements – rather than operating in tension (as assumed, e.g., in many Nature vs. Nurture discussions)
  • Multiple Approaches to Understanding (Howard Gardner, 2000s) – a compilation of advice for incorporating principles of Multiple Intelligences (see below) into classroom teaching. Matters addressed include selecting topics for study, designing effective introductions, using multiple representations alongside powerful metaphors and analogies, varying modes of engagement – all in manners consistent with principles of Multiple Intelligences.
  • Theory of Adaptive Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 2020s) – a perspective on ability that is founded on the conviction that intelligence is originally and principally about adapting to the situation, and so best assessed through real-world problems
Constructs associated more with “disability” within this frame include:
  • Eco-Anxiety (Ecological Anxiety; Eco-Distress; Climate Anxiety) (American Psychological Association, 2000s) – persistent psychological disquiet triggered by experiences of and reports on ecological disruptions associated with climate change. Manifestations of Eco-Anxiety can range from uneasiness to paralysis.
  • Eco-Grief (Climate Grief; Ecological Grief) (Aldo Leopold, 1940s) – the experience of sadness, anxiety, and/or despondency over human-triggered environmental degradation and destruction, both realized and anticipated
  • Nature-Deficit Disorder (Richard Louv, 2000s) – the suggestion that many contemporary behavioral, emotional, and cognitive problems are triggered by spending less time outdoors (and/or could be treated by spending more time in natural settings)
Regarding formal assessments of (dis)ability and educational interventions, as might be expected, matters are much more complicated when context, content, change, and multiple aspects are considered. Notable strategies and constructs that are consistent with a Social Model of (Dis)Ability include:
  • Capability Approach (Capabilities Approach) (Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, 1980s) – the perspective that society should make it possible for everyone to flourish. Developed in economics, the original focus was on material entitlements. When invoked within education, typical emphases are thinking abilities, social relationships, and relevant knowledge (especially regarding accessing cultural capital).
  • Compensatory Education – school programs that are designed to meet the particular needs and enhance the learning of children from disadvantaged settings
  • Habilitation – training aimed at well-being and independent functioning for individuals with congenital limitations (e.g., visual impairment)
  • Miscue Analysis (Ken Goodman, 1960s) – a comprehensive strategy to assess reading competence in real time while identifying reading behaviors that might need support. Assessors focus on “miscues” (versus “errors”) within settings that are as natural as possible (versus laboratories).
  • Situational Judgement Test (SJT) – an assessment of qualities and skills deemed necessary for specific professional roles (e.g., teacher, physician), typically structured around a sequence of fictional situations that might be expected in those roles. Candidates must choose courses of action and justify their choices. Examples include:
    • AAME PREview (Professional Readiness Examination) (Association of American Medical Colleges) – a Situational Judgment Test focused on a suite of competencies associated with medical schools
    • CASPer® (Computer-Based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics; CMSENS) (Harold Reiter, Kelly Dore, 2000s) – an online Situational Judgment Test intended to assess professionalism, personal values, and interpersonal skills.
  • Spiral Test – a type of test that covers multiple domains of intelligence, each of which is addressed by questions distributed throughout the test (vs. being clustered together) that get more challenging as the test progresses (i.e., they “spiral” in difficulty)
  • Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – a group test (i.e., one that can be administered to multiple people at the same time) based on the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (see above), thus providing measures of Analytical Intelligence,Creative Intelligence, and Practical Intelligence. The test includes a broad range of task types, including verbal, quantitative, image-based, story telling, design-focused, and problem-solving.
  • Subject-Object Interview (Robert Kegan, 1980s) – an tool to assess where one might land among the levels of consciousness described within Constructive-Developmental Theory – that is, an assessment of the scope or complexity of one’s consciousness
  • Unobtrusive Measure – an assessment undertaken without the awareness of the one being assessed


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 discourses associated with the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability, 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.


  • AAME PREview (Professional Readiness Examination)
  • (Theory of) Adaptive Intelligence
  • Analytical Intelligence
  • At-Risk (At-Promise)
  • Augmented Theory of Successful Intelligence
  • Bioecological Theory of Intelligence
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Capability Approach (Capabilities Approach)
  • CASPer (Computer-Based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics; CMSENS)
  • Compensatory Education
  • Componential Subtheory
  • Contextual Subtheory
  • Creative Intelligence
  • Critical Disability Theory (Critical Disability Studies)
  • Critical Psychology
  • Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD)
  • Dyspedagogia (Teaching Disorder)
  • Eco-Anxiety (Ecological Anxiety; Eco-Distress; Climate Anxiety)
  • Eco-Grief (Climate Grief; Ecological Grief)
  • Existential Intelligence
  • Experiential Subtheory
  • Field Theory of Intelligence
  • Habilitation
  • Health Psychology (Health Care Psychology)
  • Intelligence
  • Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
  • Material Intelligence
  • Miscue Analysis
  • Multiple Approaches to Understanding
  • Multiple Intelligences
  • Musical-Rhythmic and Harmonic Intelligence (Musical Intelligence)
  • Naturalistic Intelligence
  • Nature-Deficit Disorder
  • Pediatric Psychology
  • Practical Intelligence (Everyday Intelligence)
  • Situated Intelligence
  • Situational Judgment Test (SJT)
  • Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH)
  • Sociogenic Hypothesis
  • Special Child
  • Special Education
  • Special Needs
  • Spiral Test
  • Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test
  • Street Intelligence
  • Subject-Object Interview
  • Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Theory of Successful Intelligence)
  • Unobtrusive Measure
  • Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence
  • Visual-Spatial Intelligence
  • Wisdom-Based Intelligence

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Social Model of (Dis)Ability” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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