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The social model of disability

The social model informs the MU’s approach to equality and inclusion. The MU recognise that work towards adopting the social model, as an organisation, is ongoing and constantly needs reflection and engagement with disabled members.

The social model describes a collective experience of discrimination and exclusion, and challenges attitudes, beliefs and barriers created by society.

It was developed by disabled people in response to the dominant medical model of disability. It redefines and challenges traditional thinking about disability and argues that people are disabled by society.

The medical model (sometimes referred to as the individual/tragedy model) of disability views disability as a ‘problem’ that belongs to the individual.

The medical model looks to “fix” or “cure” disabled people, so they can “fit in” to society as it is. This model requires no change from society and reinforces negative attitudes towards difference and contributes to prejudice & stigma.

The medical model requires disabled people to change who they are, or be excluded as they don’t fit in.

In contrast, the social model reflects disabled people’s real-lived experience and places these experiences into the context of an equality and human rights framework.

Recognising barriers to access

The social model recognises that people have impairments but are disabled by barriers to accessing the world.

Barriers can encompass many things, such as:

  • Physical: buildings only being accessible by stairs, toilets that aren’t accessible, not providing equipment or communication in different formats
  • Attitudinal: assuming someone can’t do something or can do less, dismissing someone because they don’t play an instrument the same way as other musicians or use music technology to make music
  • Institutional/Organisational: inflexible policies or practices within organisations. For example, always starting meetings at 9:00 am when a disabled person can’t travel in rush hour, or meetings that are three hours long with no breaks

Using the social model helps identify the need to remove barriers to inclusion. Removing barriers gives people more independence, choice and control of their lives.


Instead of specialist services for disabled people that have been created based on the assumption that disabled people can’t access “mainstream” services, inclusion breaks down barriers in society so that everyone can access services equally.

As the social model identifies barriers and inequality built by society, society can also address these inequalities by removing these barriers and thinking differently when designing, buildings, services, policies and practices.

Key to addressing this is to ensure engagement directly with disabled people. Increasing the representation of disabled people throughout all aspects of music & leadership is key to change and a move towards a more inclusive & equal society.

Inclusion in action

A musician who has access requirements cannot gain access to a stage because there are only steps leading up to it.

The medical model would locate the problem as the disabled musician, they can’t get on to the stage but everyone else can. It’s their problem.

The social model would identify the stage as the issue as it should be accessible. Good access to the stage means there wouldn’t be a “problem” to begin with, good access to the stage would benefit everyone, not just the musician.

Do you have any access requirements?

You don’t need to know what a person’s impairment is to know what their access requirements are, even if people have the same impairment, their access requirements may be different.

Instead of asking about someone’s disability or impairment ask:

“Do you have any access requirements?”

The Deaf cultural model

The Deaf cultural model rejects the medical definition of deafness as either a “loss” or “impairment”. For the majority of culturally Deaf people there is no “impairment” or “loss” – Deafness is a natural part of who they are, not something to be “fixed”.

The Deaf cultural model focuses on shared experiences, histories and the central role that sign language plays in the Deaf community.

Sign language users often identify themselves as being part of the Deaf community, taking pride in using sign language and being part of a Deaf culture rather than being lowercase-d "deaf", which can describe people who regard their deafness in medical terms.

Not everyone will identify with the social model of disability and the Deaf cultural model, there are differences and evolving debates, but both models are significant in changing attitudes and understanding and have had a real impact in society, in the workplace and on the lives of Deaf and disabled people.

If you are concerned about how you are being treated at work and you would like advice on disability rights please contact your Regional Office. You may also find the disability guidance available from Acas useful.

Guidance pack on workplace rights for disabled musicians

The Disabled Musicians' Rights is a guidance pack is designed to provide musicians with information about your rights at work as set out under the Equality Act 2010. Learn more about:

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