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. 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. Associated discourses 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 (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): a three-aspect theory asserting that intellectual competence comprises:
    • Analytical Intelligence – abilities to analyze, compare, evaluate, critique, judge, and other skills measured by intelligence tests
    • Creative Intelligence – skills associated with creating, inventing, exploring, and imagining
    • Practical Intelligence – ability to apply one’s intelligence in everyday contexts


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.


  • Analytical Intelligence
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Creative Intelligence
  • Existential Intelligence
  • Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
  • Multiple Intelligences
  • Musical-Rhythmic and Harmonic Intelligence
  • Naturalistic Intelligence
  • Practical Intelligence
  • Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Theory of Successful Intelligence)
  • Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence
  • Visual-Spatial Intelligence

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Social Model of (Dis)Ability” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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