The Medical Model of Disability and the Boundaries of 'Normal' in Ordinary Schools

According to the medical model of disability, which learners in ordinary schools are regarded as ‘outside the boundaries of normal’ and how does this model justify the view that it holds of such learners?

The medical model of disability has long influenced perceptions of individuals with disabilities within society, including the context of ordinary schools. This model tends to classify learners into two categories: ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal,’ largely based on medical diagnoses.


  1. Definition: The medical model of disability defines disability as a problem or defect that resides in the individual. It considers disability to be a medical condition that needs to be treated or cured.
  2. Focus: This model tends to focus on individual impairments or differences, rather than considering broader societal or environmental factors that may contribute to disability.
  3. Solution Oriented: The medical model seeks to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ disability through medical interventions. This might include medical treatments, surgeries, rehabilitation, and the use of assistive devices or technologies.
  4. Pathologizing: The medical model often pathologizes disability, meaning it views disability as a disease or disorder that deviates from the norm. This can lead to stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities.
  5. Standard of Normality: This model applies a ‘normal’ standard, typically based on the abilities and functioning of non-disabled people, to assess and categorize individuals. Those who do not meet this standard due to their impairments are often considered disabled.
  6. Professional Domination: Under the medical model, professionals (such as doctors or therapists) often have significant authority in defining and managing disability. This can sometimes disempower individuals with disabilities by marginalizing their personal experiences and perspectives.
  7. Historical Dominance: Historically, the medical model has been the dominant perspective on disability. It has significantly influenced public policy, healthcare, and education, among other areas.
  8. Criticism and Alternatives: The medical model has been widely criticized for its focus on individual deficits and its failure to consider social and environmental barriers to participation. Many advocates and scholars promote alternative models, such as the social model of disability, which emphasize societal barriers and call for social change to promote disability rights and inclusion.

The Medical Model of Disability and the Boundaries of ‘Normal’ in Ordinary Schools

Who is Regarded as ‘Outside the Boundaries of Normal’?

The medical model of disability views disability as a problem that resides in the individual, stemming from physical, mental, or psychological impairments. In the context of ordinary schools, this model would consider students with disabilities as being ‘outside the boundaries of normal.’

Students with disabilities might include those with physical disabilities (like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy), sensory disabilities (like visual or hearing impairments), intellectual disabilities (like Down syndrome or other cognitive impairments), and psychological or psychiatric disabilities (like autism spectrum disorder or ADHD). It might also include learners with chronic health conditions, such as epilepsy or diabetes, which might interfere with typical school participation.

Video: Medical and Social Models of Disability

Justification of the View by the Medical Model of Disability

The medical model of disability justifies its view by attributing the differences of individuals with disabilities to their medical conditions. It argues that it is these conditions or impairments that limit the individual’s ability to participate and function in society, including within the educational context.

Under this model, the primary solution to the ‘problem’ of disability is medical intervention. The aim is often to cure, alleviate, or manage the condition to allow the individual to fit into societal norms better. In an educational context, this might translate into special education services, therapies, or other supports designed to help the student ‘keep up’ with their typically developing peers.

Criticisms and Alternatives to the Medical Model

While the medical model has been historically dominant, it has been widely criticized. Critics argue that this model is disempowering, as it focuses on what people with disabilities cannot do, instead of their abilities or potential. It also overlooks the role societal structures and attitudes play in creating barriers for people with disabilities.

An alternative approach, known as the social model of disability, posits that it is society, rather than individuals’ impairments, that disables people. It suggests that if societal structures were more inclusive and accommodating, individuals with disabilities could participate fully in all aspects of life, including education.

In schools, a social model approach might involve creating an inclusive learning environment, where all students, regardless of their differences, can learn together in the same classroom. It emphasizes the need for schools to adapt to the needs of all students, rather than expecting students to conform to a ‘normal’ standard.


In sum, the medical model of disability views students with disabilities as being ‘outside the boundaries of normal’ within the context of ordinary schools, justifying this view based on the presence of medical conditions. However, it’s crucial to recognize the limitations and criticisms of this model and consider more inclusive and empowering approaches, like the social model of disability.

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