The Social Model of disability was first developed in 1976 by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) . They offered the following explanation of disability:
“[I]t is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society” (Finkelstein, 2001, p.1).
This model allowed me to understand that there are physical, attitudinal, and social barriers that stop me from fully participating in society. For instance, the built environment is the result of decisions made by businesses, architects, and builders based on their needs and goals. Chairs are not naturally occurring. I am not too fat for the seat, the seat is designed in a way that excludes my body. It denies my existence and refuses to allow my participation.
Increasingly, my body is being perceived by medical authorities and others as being ill. I am not ill. If, due to this misunderstanding, I am denied a job because I am considered to be a possible drain on an company insurance plan, or because it leads to the (incorrect) belief that I will take more sick days than someone who is not fat, then I am being disabled. These misperceptions have nothing to do with me, or the lived reality of my body. They are false barriers put up by others.
There are some things that have to be considered, though, before we can wholeheartedly embrace the notion of fat as a disability. Firstly, some people are going to resist the idea of calling themselves disabled. This may stem from a misapprehension of what it means to have an impairment (physical, mental, emotioinal, etc.). In disability, this attitude is called ‘ableist’, since it incorrectly assumes people with disabilities to be less than, or lacking in some way. Secondly, the disabled community has spent a long time fighting for their rights and changing attitudes, laws, and regulations. Is it really fair for us to try and join them now that they have done so much of the work (Cooper, 1997)? Well, if we work inclusively so that it is not only our own rights we are fighting for, perhaps we can bring more people to the party/fight/action. Thirdly, some disability activists may see fat as a mutable difference, under our control. But, that is not borne out by the evidence.
Of course, there are some people who have impairments and are fat, and some fat people who have impairments and some fat people who have no impairments. None of this matters, we are all disabled when we face physical, attitudinal or social barriers to full participation in society.
But, why do we need the social model at all?
Liz Crow explains the impact of the social model on her life this way: “This was the explanation I had sought for years. Suddenly what I had always known, deep down, was confirmed. It wasn’t my body that was responsible for all my difficulties, it was external factors, the barriers constructed by the society in which I live” (1996).
This is my own experience of using the social model to understand the world and my experiences in it. Most often, fat people are understood through the medical model, this has been especially true since the inception of the “obesity epidemic”. Even strangers feel that they understand the habits and health of total strangers whom they judge to be fat. Public health policies target our bodies as needing correction through the application of medical knowledge and/or technology.
More importantly, many of us understand ourselves with the medical model that starts from the point of view that our bodies are wrong or flawed in and of themselves – even if we suffer no medical problems.
Want to read more about Fat as a disability?
Aphramor, L. (2009). Disability and the anti-obesity offensive. Disability & Society, 24(7), 897-909.
Cooper, C. (1997). Can a fat woman call herself disabled? Disability & Society, 12(1), 31-42.
Herndon, A. (2002). Disparate but disabled: Fat embodiment and disability studies. NWSA Journal, 14(3), 120-137.
Kirkland, A. (Winter 2006). What’s at stake in fatness as a disability?Disability Studies Quarterly,26(1)
Murray, S.(2007). Corporeal knowledges and deviant bodies: Perceiving the fat body. Social Semiotics,17(3), 361-373.
Murray, S. (2008). Pathologizing “fatness”: Medical authority and popular culture. Sociology of Sport Journal, 25, 7-21.
Finkelstein, Vic. “The Social Model of Disability Repossessed.” Disability Archive UK. University of Leeds, Centre for Disability Studies. n.d. Web. 25 Jun 2012.
Cooper, Charlotte. “Can a Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled?” Disability & Society 12.1 (1997): 31 – 41. Print.
Crow, Liz. “Including All of Our Lives: Renewing the social model of disability.” Encounters with Strangers, London: Women’s Press. 1996. Print.