Models of Disability

Last week, we had our first parent/teacher conferences of the school year. During the conferences we discussed the importance of self-advocacy for students with disabilitiesthat mathematical proficiency is more than procedural fluency, and how hard it can be for a parent of a student with a disability. This time afforded me the opportunity to reflect on some of the reading I’ve done lately including some books more specifically about disability.


One such book is Disability Studies and the Inclusive Classroom by Susan Baglieri and Arthur Shapiro. Baglieri and Shapiro present an easily digestible version of how disability is currently situated in the world of education and society. Baglieri and Shapiro go into detail about two models of disability that influence our work with students with disabilities in the school setting. They are the medical model and the social model of disability.


The medical model is currently the prevailing paradigm used to structure the education of students with disabilities. The medical model delineates between “normal functioning” and that which is “pathological” or “dysfunctional.” In this model, the “dysfunction” or “problem” lies solely within the person with the disability and this is considered separately from all social or societal contexts. In the school setting, this is best exemplified by the process by which students with disabilities receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). First, a student suspected of having a disability is given a battery of tests (including a Woodcock-Johnson test or the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). Next, that student is given an IEP, which essentially details the educational “treatment plan” for the student’s “dysfunction” in school. Finally, the student is given a placement based on their “needs” as outlined in the IEP, such as self-contained, inclusion, and out-of-district placement. Baglieri and Shapiro liken the IEP to an “educational prescription.”

The main features of the medical model are:

  • The student with a disability is “abnormal” or “dysfunctional.”
  • Thus, the student with a disability needs “treatment” or a “cure” in order to function more “normally.”

This model can be seen very clearly reflected in Applied Behavior Analysis, a popular behavior modification therapy for people with autism. However, not everyone agrees that this is the best method.


The other paradigm, which came out of the disability rights movement, is the social model of disability. The focus of the social model is not on the person with a disability, but on the social context which makes the disabling feature meaningful. The social model attempts to analyze all features of the person’s environment and how they contribute to the disabling of the person, including physical, social, and cultural environmental features. Rachel Lambert reminded me that the social model “does not, however, assert that the biological disability does not exist, it just shifts the focus to consideration of the social context.”

A societal example of this concept would be when a person who uses a wheelchair crosses the street. One physical feature of the environment is the curb separating the sidewalk from the street. Instead of trying to “cure” the person using the wheelchair in order to be more “normal” and traverse the curb, the social model analyzes the physical environment, which in this case is disabling the wheelchair user. In the design world, this type of analysis is the basis for the concept of universal design. The Center for Applied and Special Technology (CAST) has adapted this idea for education as Universal Design for Learning, which I have written about in the past.

Other than the IEP, these models seem to manifest in math class most often in the implementation of the multi-tiered approach to intervention, Response to Intervention (RtI). RtI, at its core, is based on screening for students who have different needs than the rest of the students. The “normal” students. These screenings and/or assessments are meant to address the students who struggle with the expectations of the Tier 1 curriculum. These students are then placed or tracked into Tier 2, where they receive more targeted interventions. This is most likely small group instruction focused on student deficits. Tier 3 takes the medical model even further by explicitly remediating student deficits and if the student is still not able to meet the expectations of each tier, they are “considered for eligibility for special education.”

People often ask if there is a better option than RtI, based on its focus on the pathology of students. My answer is to use the social model of disability and implement Universal Design for Learning at Tier 1 to analyze the social context in which students are meeting or not meeting mathematical expectations. We are the curb in this case and the following questions can help us determine the curb cuts in order to enable all of our students:

  • What are the essential mathematical goals, prerequisites, and common misconceptions of the lesson?
  • What are the barriers that are disabling students from meeting the mathematical goals and can they be eliminated due to lack of relevance?
  • What student strengths can be leveraged in order to increase access to the mathematical focus of the lesson?
  • What instructional supports can be implemented that set appropriately high expectations, retain the mathematical focus, assist in student understanding, and scaffold only the areas of need?

3 thoughts on “Models of Disability

  1. Great post, Andrew.

    With respect to this question, “What instructional supports can be implemented that set appropriately high expectations, retain the mathematical focus, assist in student understanding, and scaffold only the areas of need?” we have this list (created based on our work with Amy Lucenta and Grace Kelemanik) which seems like it is incomplete if we really intend to support all students. For example, annotation is of little benefit to a student who is blind so what’s a different support I can include in my teaching to make it more accessible to students at all ranges of visual ability?

    With respect to the use of ABA, my nephew is autistic and his step-aunt (who is also his caretaker) is a firm believer in the use of ABA (but my guess is that it is a modified context-aware ABA as opposed to the scripted clinical version described in the article). My nephew has made enormous strides towards being able to interface with the social world and I think one issue that comes up with UBD is that this requires the world, especially the social world, to change significantly in order to better incorporate people on all parts of the social-awareness spectrum/landscape. So where my step-sister can, she helps other people become aware of my nephew’s needs and attempts to make the world he lives in more suitable for his needs, but at the same time she uses a variety of strategies to help my nephew be more able to navigate in the world. She holds extremely high expectations of what he is capable and is frequently frustrated by people who hold low expectations for him. She wants my nephew to both be able to ask people on the street what their name is and actually want to know the answer because he finds people’s names useful pieces of information to know!


    • First, thank you very much for relating your personal story.

      ABA is a very polarizing and personal choice within the disability community. I wouldn’t presume to make generalized statements about it, except that it does seem to mostly be a product of the medical model.


  2. Great post! I think the next question is: What are the necessary curb cuts for mathematics classrooms? And I always ask my students to think about curb cuts as a deeper metaphor for pedagogy: curb cuts are great for wheelchair users, and people pushing strollers, but initially they were terrible for people who are blind (until the raised dots were added so they could be perceived by people using canes). What pedagogical curb cuts are most useful, and which are complicated (like annotation, as David points out). Next post?


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