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Easy ways to use the Social Model of Disability in communications

This guide discusses how to use the Social Model in across your organisation’s communications.

Reading Level: Medium
Reading Time: 7 minutes

So how do you use the Social Model of Disability in reality? This guide discusses how to use the Social Model across your organisation’s communications.

Understanding the importance of definitions

The Social Model of Disability states that people have impairments; they do not have disabilities. According to the social model, using the term ‘people with disabilities’ confuses impairment and disability. It implies disability is something caused by the individual rather than society.

As an example, you would say “Disabled person” (not “handicapped”), “wheelchair user” (not “wheelchair-bound”), “person with learning disabilities” (not “retarded”).

Using the word ‘Disabled’ before ‘people’ signifies identification with a collective cultural identity and capitalising the ‘D’ highlights the term’s political significance.

Preferred terms

  • People with Learning Difficulties

    This group often identifies as ‘People with Learning Difficulties’, or ‘People with Learning Impairments’. There are many different types of learning difficulty. More well-known are dyslexia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

  • People with Learning Disabilities

    A learning disability is the reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities. This could be household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.

    A learning disability is different from a learning difficulty because a learning difficulty does not affect general intellect. Learning disability is often confused with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD or Dyspraxia. However, a person can have both a learning disability and a learning difficulty.

  • Deaf People

    People with milder hearing loss may label themselves as ‘hard of hearing’, or ‘hearing impaired’. Regardless, people with no functional hearing are known as Deaf and consider that their culture and language are different from other people.

    Thus ‘Deaf’ should be capitalised. When depicting a communal identity, ‘Deaf’ can be used to describe people who are Deaf or have other hearing impairments.

  • Blind People

    People with impaired vision often like to be referred to as Visually Impaired People. However, people who have no functional vision are Blind. And they consider their cultural and political identity to be unique and different to other people.


    Thus ‘Blind ‘needs to be capitalised. When depicting a communal identity, ‘Blind’ can depict people who are Blind or have other visual impairments. 

  • People with Mental Health Impairments

    By using the social model, you accept that Mental health impairments are disabling for those they affect. You should not refer to individuals as having mental health problems.

    Many people like to use the label ‘Mental Health System Survivors’ as a statement against the often difficult, disabling and debilitating experiences they have to endure.

  • Cancer Survivors

    People who have had or currently are undergoing cancer treatment will often refer to themselves as Cancer Survivors. This reflects their communal identity as their cancer is usually in remission rather than cured. It highlights their struggle and experiences.

Using the social model in your work

Many organisations that we work with use the social model to ensure that their work is representative for Disabled people. It is important to remember that for an effective change, you need to use it across all your work. Of course, language is also deeply personal. And at a more individual level, some Disabled people may not relate to this language.

Therefore, it is essential that organisations also engage in regular conversations with Disabled people to find out an individual’s preference around disability and the use of language.

Next Steps

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