Against the social theory of disability

The social theory of disability says that disabled people are made disabled not be their impairments but by barriers in society. E.g: if a person in a wheelchair cannot enter a building because it has stairs, they’re disabled by the lack of a ramp, not by their inability to walk.

The social theory of disability is wrong.

For a person to be disabled in regards to X, they must both:

  • Have an impairment which can, in some circumstances, prevent them from doing X
  • Be in a physical world that stops people with that impairment from doing X.

There are two causes of their disability. The state of the world and the state of their mind/body. Both are necessary causes. The social model ignores one and looks only at the other.

Why is a theory that is so obviously untrue so popular? Many reasons. Understanding how and why ideas spread is hard. One reasons is the social dynamics/incentives surrounding it. Blaming disabled people for their disability is socially costly and unacceptable. Saying that that it is societies fault is not. Hence people will tend to say the latter and avoid saying the former. Another is that it’s favoured by disability rights activists because "Stop hurting these people" is an easier sell than "reallocate money to this group so they can have better lives".

One interesting thing about the theory is its wording. Society *disables people. It’s an assignment of blame. Societies actions harm these people. The implication is that society is doing something unjust, that we have an obligation to not do so. In reality that’s not the case. There is a difference between disabling someone and not taking steps to enable them just as there is a difference between destroying someone’s car and refusing to buy them a car. Taking action to harm another person is far more morally repulsive from not taking an action to help them. If you go up to a person with sight and gouge their eyes out, you blind them. If you build a building but do not spend the $5 million it would take to make it accessible to blind people, you are not morally equivalent to they eye gouger.

I still remember when I talked to people about this at work. Many refused to accept the notion of trade-off’s. That for some accommodations, the cost outweighed the benefit. Strange. Maybe an easy way to prevent dissent is to make it synonymous with evil/hatred. Maybe many people are just too stupid to engage in basic moral reasoning. Still, I don’t think it’s stupidity. It felt like something else.

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