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the Concept of Oppression and the Development of a Social Theory

In the view of the disability rights movement, then, the medical model is part of the problem, not the solution. A solution would require that the model be replaced. Efforts to replace it were twofold. First, efforts were made to demonstrate that not only was the medical model oppressive, as noted above, but, when applied to a person with a disability, it was based on a false premise and, therefore, inappropriate. Second, a new, social, model was proposed to replace the old, medical, model. The new model was designed to be liberating, not oppressive, a basis for inclusion, not marginalization.

The medical model was shown to be inappropriate in that it posits that the condition, the impairment or “illness,” in question is temporary. Thus, according to the medical model, a person with an impairment could plausibly or reasonably be asked to forgo control of one’s own life, handing that control over to the medial professional who would treat the condition, the impairment. After all, the condition was only “temporary” and would be cured soon enough. Consequently, the pain of being deprived of autonomy, of control over one’s life, the usual price for the “privilege” of receiving medical treatment for a sickness, would be temporary. Under the medical model, the pain of losing one’s autonomy is analogous to pain following a serious operation, or to the side effect of an otherwise beneficial, short-lived, medical treatment: unwanted, unpleasant, but unavoidable, and, thus, an acceptable, consequence of a successful treatment. However, many, if not most, impairments are forever.

Blindness, multiple sclerosis, developmental disorders, for example, are rarely cured. Thus, if the medical model prevails, a person with an impairment might, justifiably, be asked to forgo his/her autonomy forever. Those in the disability rights movement did not wish to pay such a price, especially, when the treatment of an impairment as a temporary misfortune or ailment, rather than as what it so often, a long-term, even lifetime, condition is considered a “mis-treatment.”

The demonstration that the medical model which, while suitable for a truly temporary, short-lived misfortune, is unsuitable when applied to those with a long-term impairment was a key facet of the disability rights movement’s efforts to provide an ideological basis for its efforts to provide a solution to the problems facing those with disabilities. A second, key facet was to offer its own model of what disability is and of how to respond to it. Indeed, following Turner’s (1969: 391) observation, the disability rights movement could only be a “a significant social movement” if it could offer “a revision in the manner in which . . . people look at some misfortune,” here long-term impairment, “seeing it . . . an injustice which is intolerable in society.”