(Editor’s Note: the following is reprinted with permission from LET’S (Live Educate Transform Society) as posted on the American Psychological Association web site)

How people think about disability affects how they feel about disability. Although people have various individual perspectives on disability, these viewpoints can be categorized into three overarching models of disability—moral, medical, and social (Olkin, 2002). Each model addresses the perceived causes of disability, appropriate responses, and deeper meanings.

Moral model

In the moral model, disability is seen as having meaning about the person’s or the family’s character, deeds, thoughts, and karma. From this perspective, disability can carry stigma, shame and blame, particularly if the disability is seen as a mark of wrongdoing. Alternatively, disability can be seen as a sign of honor, faith or strength. For example, someone who is religious may believe they (or their family member) were chosen to have a disability due to God’s faith in them. Disability may also be perceived as a positive reminder of having survived a life challenge (e.g., a polio epidemic, or stepping on a land mine). The moral model is very prevalent worldwide and is often depicted in the media. For example, some movies use a physical disability to show evil. In contrast some movies portray the disabled person as one who goes beyond usual human levels to achieve unique goals, such as a wheelchair user who climbs El Capitan in Yosemite.

Medical model

In the medical model, disability is perceived as an impairment in a body system or function that is inherently pathological. From this perspective, the goal is to return the system or function to as close to “normal” as possible. The medical model suggests that professionals with specialized training are the “experts” in disability. Persons with disability are expected to follow the advice of these “experts.” The language of the medical model is clinical and medical (e.g., left hemiplegia; partial lesion at the T4 level). This view is one that can sometimes be seen within the fields of health, mental health, and education.

The medical model of disability often is depicted in movies through a plot in which a disabled person is depressed and hopeless, but through friendship with an able-bodied person the disabled person learns to embrace life. A reverse twist on this is the idea that disabled people show able-bodied characters how to be better people.

Social model

In the social model, disability is seen as one aspect of a person’s identity, much like race/ethnicity, gender, etc. From this perspective, disability is believed to result from a mismatch between the disabled person and the environment (both physical and social). It is this environment that creates the handicaps and barriers, not the disability. From this perspective, the way to address disability is to change the environment and society, rather than people with disabilities. Negative stereotypes, discrimination and oppression serve as barriers to environmental change and full inclusion.

Movies depicting disability from a social model are more apt to have multiple disabled characters who form bonds, learn, and grow, without dependence on an able-bodied character. Other films show disabled characters more realistically: in the context of loving families who are not ‘burdened’ by the disability; in a society that discriminates; as activist trying to change laws.

What is your model?

Although students have a tendency to see one model as superior to the others, there are some potential benefits and costs to all of these perspectives. The moral model can bring shame, but also renewed faith. The medical model has spurred tremendous advances in rehabilitation but is paternalistic. The social model fosters community, but systemic ableism can be overwhelming. Probably most people have beliefs in more than one model. But it is hard to know, since currently there is not a well-established measure of the models. More data are needed from disabled persons to get their perspective on the costs and benefits of their particular model of disability.


Find a movie with one or more disabled characters, then answer a few questions: (a) Which model(s) did the disabled character hold? (b) What was the director’s perspective on disability? (c) What was the main message about disability in the movie?

About the author

Rhoda Olkin, PhD, is a distinguished professor in the clinical PsyD program at the California School of Professional Psychology, San Francisco Bay Area campus.


Olkin, R. (2002). Could you hold the door for me? Including disability in diversity. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 8, 130-137.