Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging
Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

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Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

3 Medical or social?

You might have come across debates about whether a learning disability is a medical or a social condition.

You already know from the definitions given in Section 2 that a learning disability is lifelong, meaning it cannot be cured. Some people are adamant that disability is socially created as society is organised for people who are not disabled. This argument is known as the social model of disability.

Box 1 The social model of disability

The phrase ‘social model of disability’ was coined in the 1970s by UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation), a movement of physically disabled people, who said that people were not disabled by their bodies or minds, but by how they were treated in society. They said that society needed to reduce the barriers they experienced. You may be familiar with these ideas, as they have led to facilities like accessible toilets, hearing loops, ramps to help people in wheelchairs onto buses, etc.

Described image
Figure 3 The social model of disability led to a number of positive changes for disabled people

UPIAS said the opposite of the social model is a ‘medical model’, which places the problem within the individual. The medical model suggests it is because people’s bodies do not work well that they are excluded – therefore it is their own fault.

Like the physical disabilities UPIAS was talking about, learning disability is also not a medical condition. There is no ‘cure’, no drug that will alleviate it. If it can be cured it is not, by definition, a learning disability. Where people with learning disabilities do need medical help, it is frequently because of other, associated conditions that they might have, like epilepsy.

You could argue that people with learning disabilities are disabled by society. If people cannot communicate in speech, if they cannot read or write, they will certainly find it hard to take part on equal terms with people who can – in competing for a job, for example.

Activity 2 A learning disability friendly society?

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Click the link below to answer the poll on what you consider important in order for a society to be friendlier to people with a learning disability.

Link: A learning disability friendly society? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Once you have submitted your choice you can then see how others have voted.

Much of what services and supporters do is based on ideas associated with the social model; to try to create an environment which will minimise the impact of the learning disability. It won’t go away, but lots can be done to make life enjoyable. It is this you will consider next.


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