Academic journal article Exceptional Children

A Social Constructionist Approach to Disability: Implications for Special Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

A Social Constructionist Approach to Disability: Implications for Special Education

Article excerpt

The basic concepts of the "social" (social constructionist) model were developed initially by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), an organization in the United Kingdom advocating for the rights of people with physical disabilities, beginning in the 1970s (see Abberley, 1996; Barnes, 1991; Shakespeare, 2006, for historical details). Various theorists and activists--such as Paul Hunt, Vic Finkelstein, Paul Abberley, Colin Barnes, and especially Michael Oliver, an academic sociologist with a physical disability--also played roles in the development and extension of this model to other disabilities. Oliver has been prominent since the mid-1980s in the promotion of his social constructionist approach.

It is important to scrutinize the claims of the constructionist model articulated by its leading authors and examine the consequences of their assertions for special education. As persons not identified as having disabilities, we respect the direct experience of persons with disabilities, their endeavors to produce a viable theoretical work, and their contribution to the disability movement. We also believe that publicly expressed ideas should be subject to the same kind of testing, regardless of whether their originators or proponents have disabilities.



We use the term social constructionist model (or, more simply constructionist model) to refer to what some writers have called the "social model" of disability. The social constructionist model has been juxtaposed with what social constructionists have called an individual or medical model (Barnes, 1991; Hahn, 1985; Oliver, 1996).

In the view of social constructionists, the so-called individual/medical model underpins the "medicalization" of disability. Proponents of the constructionist model have six complaints about an individual/medical model:

1. It implies that "within-individual" (physical and psychological) factors are the primary or exclusive causes of disability (Barnes, 1991; Oliver, 1996).

2. It de-emphasizes the role of social factors in creating disabilities (Barnes, 1991; Hahn, 1985; Oliver, 1996).

3. It creates a taxonomic system for categorizing disabilities, and an identification process that results in labeling people with disabilities (Barnes, 1991).

4. It connotes the treatment of people with disabilities by medical and paramedical professions and creates powerful, vested interests in the medical industry for finding a "cure" for disability or preventing it (Oliver, 1996).

5. It connotes a cruel professional attitude toward people with disabilities, a paternalistic relationship between the professional and the clients with disabilities, and it invades people's privacy (Oliver, 1990, 1993; Oliver & Barnes, 1993).

6. It implies the medical treatment of disability, which, in turn, is equated with stigma, unnecessary hospitalization, and asylums (Barnes, 1991; Oliver & Barnes, 1993).

These are all seen as historical "sins" of psychiatry and the medical profession more generally.

Social constructionists (Barnes, 1991; Oliver, 1990; Pfeiffer, 1998) regard even the tripartite International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH) definition of the World Health Organization (1980) as a version of the medical/individual model. Hurst (2000) characterized it as the "official, international underpinning of the medical model of disability" (p. 1083). But according to Burry (2000)--one of the three people who worked for the ICIDH taxonomy--the ICIDH aim was to overcome the medicalization of disability and recognize the social consequences of health-related matters with the focus on the "handicap" part of the classification. On balance, Shakespeare (2006) found it unfair to equate the ICIDH with medicalized approaches to disability. …

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