Balancing the Act: ADCQ newsletter -

Models of disability

This article was presented by Kevin Cocks, Director of Queensland Advocacy, and first appeared in Balancing the Act Issue 22, February 2006, pages 1-3.


Kevin Cocks Since 1998, Kevin Cocks has been Director of Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, an agency which has been highly influential in bringing about positive change to the structures, policies and legislation governing access to services and public utilities by people with a disability. Kevin's outstanding contribution to the reform and development of professional disability services in Queensland and nationally was recently recognised with the award in 2003 of a Centenary Medal for service to the Australian community.

Recently, Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland staff had the opportunity to hear from the Director of QAI (Queensland Advocacy Incorporated), Kevin Cocks. Kevin delivered a presentation exploring societal attitudes towards people with disabilities and the need for a paradigm shift before people with disabilities are able to live with dignity as functioning and valued citizens in society.

Kevin observed that our decision-making frameworks are significantly influenced by our personal values, belief systems and commonly-held assumptions about class, culture, race, gender, sexuality and, in particular, disability.

Kevin pointed out that disability activists and policy analysts have identified two dominant paradigms or models in the history of the debate (the Moral Model and the Medical Model), with the emergence of a 'third way' (the Social Model) providing a viable way forward.

The Moral Model is the oldest paradigm for understanding disability. Based in religious mythology, it regarded disability as a result of sin and shame and led to the concealment and exclusion of individuals with disabilities. Fortunately the moral model has little currency today, although Kevin noted that it has had positive outcomes in laying down the principles that have led to human rights and social justice for people with disabilities.

The Medical Model of disability emerged as science took over from religion in the explanation of natural phenomena. Under this model, disabilities are seen as 'diseases' or 'illnesses' to be cured by doctors. When the cure is not forthcoming, issues relating to the disability are deemed to reside within the individual and to place no obligation on society in general. Support services tend to be limited and inadequate, and the lives of individuals with disabilities are determined by 'professionals'.

Kevin went on to identify a set of common assumptions underpinning attitudes in society that restrict and restrain people with disabilities, including:

  • thinking of people with disabilities as partial, limited or lesser,
  • putting people with disabilities on a pedestal,
  • regarding people with disabilities as perfect objects of charity,
  • seeing disability as a sickness to be fixed,
  • stereotyping people with disabilities as a menace to themselves and society,
  • attributing "special" talents to people with disabilities,
  • restricting the social circle of people with disabilities to other people with disabilities, and
  • locating the problem within the individual with a disability rather than in societal attitudes or in the built environment.

The effects of these negative assumptions on people with disabilities has been to subject them to social degradation, including:

  • rejection by family, neighbours and even paid carers and services,
  • isolation from non-disabled peers,
  • restricted options for development, growth and enrichment,
  • concentration of people with disabilities into social groupings of rejected people,
  • a very circumscribed set of role options,
  • loss of control and autonomy,
  • material poverty, impacting on health, housing and life expectancy,
  • diminished sense of individuality and uniqueness
  • restricted social relationships, resulting in a lack of allies in times of need, and
  • neglect, damage and abuse.

Kevin made the observation that society's beliefs and attitudes about disability are not mistaken in any simple way; in fact he acknowledged that each of them contains a kernel of 'experiential truth about encounters between those with authority… and those with disabilities'. However, when tacit theories and assumptions like these underlie public policy and social relations, they severely limit the life opportunities of people with disabilities, their families and allies.

Kevin then proceeded to give some detail of how these historical and attitudinal factors have contributed to a failure of public policy dealing with disability in Queensland. People with disabilities in Australia generally and Queensland in particular have endured a regime of service provision that is typified by crisis management based on poor workforce organisation, poor financial management and, above all, a projected role of custodial care and control.

Kevin presented some very telling data to illustrate the desperate state of affairs. Of course people with disabilities have a much higher unemployment rate and a much lower workforce participation rate than their non-disabled peers. This is predictable, even if disappointing. However, it is shocking to note that, since the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1992, the number of people with disabilities employed by the commonwealth has dropped from 8% to 2%.

Apart from employment, Kevin presented statistics to show how public policy has failed people with disabilities in other areas including home modifications, the provision of household aids for mobility and functionality, and support in daily living. The interesting thing about the figures supplied by Kevin is that the number of people in the community requiring these sorts of services far outstrips the 'official' statistics on disability.

Kevin made two very telling points in relation to disability and the law. Firstly, he pointed out that, whilst race discrimination and sex discrimination were outlawed federally in 1975, people with disabilities had to wait until 1992 to get similar protection. Secondly, when the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act was amended in 2001, racial and religious vilification were made illegal but not disability vilification.

Kevin points out that people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of crime (e.g. rates of sexual assault up to ten times those in the general population), that these crimes are underreported, that police follow-up is inadequate and that rates of prosecution and conviction are low.

Kevin rounded off his presentation with an outline of the paradigm shift needed for society to redress the inequities that have developed. Society needs to embrace the Social Model of disability, a model created by people with disabilities themselves out of their own experience. It is intrinsically more positive than either the moral model or the medical model which preceded it, viewing disability as something which is imposed on people with impairments by a society that creates barriers to equality.

Under the old paradigm, 'experts' define who is disabled and society excludes these persons. The social model views impairment as part of the human condition and provides appropriate services and support structures to the full spectrum of abilities and needs across the population. The paradigm shift will mean changes:

  • in the way society defines & conceptualizes disability,
  • to the way disability is measured and counted,
  • to the design and conduct of research,
  • from an emphasis on services to an emphasis on support, and
  • away from 'special' services (standardized, congregated, impersonal, dehumanizing services on the moral or medical model) towards generic services that are flexible and adaptable enough for all citizens.

Kevin concluded his presentation with an impassioned plea for rights for people with disabilities, and went further by pointing out that rights alone are not enough. He observed that members of QAI and many other individuals live under a situation of conditional citizenship; conditional, that is, on the individual conforming to community stereotypes of 'normal'.

Kevin called on people in general to embrace a truly civil society by recognizing and valuing the unique humanity of every person, celebrating interdependence as the basis of human relationships and nurturing compassion as the logic behind our social thinking, acting and decision-making.