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 in the identification and valuation of differences. Associated and complementary discourses include:
  • 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
For the most part, the Social Model of (Dis)Ability is associated with a reframing of the notion of “disabilities,” casting them 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. 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 three-aspect theory asserting that intellectual competence comprises:
    • Analytical Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – abilities to analyze, compare, evaluate, critique, judge, and other skills measured by intelligence tests
    • Creative Intelligence (Robert Sternberg, 1980s) – skills associated with creating, inventing, exploring, and imagining
    • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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
Regarding formal assessments of (dis)ability, 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:
  • 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).
  • 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.


  • (Theory of) Adaptive Intelligence
  • Analytical Intelligence
  • Augmented Theory of Successful Intelligence
  • Bioecological Theory of Intelligence
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Creative Intelligence
  • Existential Intelligence
  • Health Psychology (Health Care Psychology)
  • Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
  • Miscue Analysis
  • Multiple Intelligences
  • Musical-Rhythmic and Harmonic Intelligence (Musical Intelligence)
  • Naturalistic Intelligence
  • Nature-Deficit Disorder
  • Pediatric Psychology
  • Practical Intelligence (Everyday Intelligence)
  • Sociogenic Hypothesis
  • 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. (2022). “Social Model of (Dis)Ability” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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