The strategy of developing an ontology or models of disability as a prior step to settling ethical issues regarding disabilities is highly problematic, for two reasons. First, key definitional aspects of disability are normative, and cannot helpfully be made value-neutral. Second, if we accept that the contested concept of disability is value-laden, it is far from obvious that there are definitive reasons for opting for an interpretation of the concept over another. I conclude that the concept of disability is better left ethically open-ended or broad enough to encompass the examination of various ethical issues (such as oppression, minority rights or physical discomfort). Alternatively, the concept of disability could be altogether abandoned in order to focus on specific issues without being hindered by debates about the nature of disability. Only political costs, rather than conceptual considerations internal to the models, could be weighed against such a conclusion.Beaudry states that
Anyone familiar with disability studies will be aware that there are various models of disability, that is, various ways to conceptualize what “disability” means, descriptively and normatively. In spite of a multiplication of models, a general distinction can helpfully be made between individual and social ones.
The “social model” of disability took off in the seventies, propelled by disability activists and later theorized by Vic Finkelstein (1980) and Michael Oliver (1990) among others. The social model was a reaction to the individual “medical model”, which conceptualized disability as a tragedy or problem localized in an individual body or mind and the definition and solution of which was to be provided by medical experts. By contrast, the social model presented disability as a social phenomenon, caused by social oppression and prejudices rather than by individual “impairments” in the person. The social model thus defines impairments as defective limbs or mechanisms in the body, and “disability” as the exclusion from which impaired people suffered. This exclusion is the real problem and it is caused by a social failure to make proper inclusivist arrangements rather than by individual biological dysfunctions.
Although the individual/medical model remains mainstream in medical and biomedical circles, the discipline of disability studies considers that the social model is the “new paradigm” and heavily criticizes the medical model, perceived as outdated and oppressive.
It may immediately seem odd to have sociologists and disability activists telling medical doctors what to do, as these experts seem to speak from different disciplines. Their common language, however, is power, and social modellists claim that individualist conceptions of disability are constructed along ideological guidelines while claiming to have a scientific objectivity (Oliver, 1990). Disability theorists aim at reversing unjustified assumptions inherent to the medical model and at empowering disabled people as their slogan, popularized in the 1990’s, “Nothing About Us Without Us” suggests.
While it is wise to remember that policies about health and medical discourses may conceal ideological content, it also seems quite radical to argue that disability is exclusively a social phenomenon, to be dealt with by social measures. Yet, such is the claim of social modellists.
As the “new paradigm”, the social model of disability underwent various criticisms and this essay suggests that many of them misfire by attempting to be ontological rather than political arguments. Conversely, I also suggest that social modellists may overstep the boundaries of their criticism of ideological/oppressive use of the medicalization of disability by being oversuspicious of all individualist/experiential standpoints on disability. It is not clear that all such standpoints hinder the full inclusion of disabled people within society; in fact, their proponents think the contrary. My overarching claim is that the disagreement between individual and social modellists about whether disability should qualify individual experiences or social experiences, or both, is largely based on the political consequences of doing so. Since individual and social modellists have substantially different ethical issues in mind, it may be a more productive approach to focus on these more specific ethical issues and either use an ethically opened version of the concept of disability or abandon it altogether. I grant that potentially valid political reasons may be weighed against such a proposal. These reasons, however, should be presented in terms of political costs rather than as confused ontological arguments.