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Jasmine P. Brown and Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar

The condition of disability and disabled persons in society has shifted and transformed throughout time and history with the rise of medical interventions, capitalism, and disability advocacy. This article discusses the different theories and models that have dominated the study of disability and further explains the contributions of disability theory on disability identity, as well as the intersection of disability and race. Also, with the rise of the social model ideals, there has been an increase in advocacy and empowerment within the disability community. This article concludes with an overview of advocacy and empowerment interventions for and with individuals with disabilities and recommendations for future research in sociology.


Physical disability is traditionally defined by society's view of atypical function. The medical model offers information on factors contributing to physical disability, including genetics, injury, and disease. The social model of disability, however, defines the societal responses, not the physical differences, as disabling. People with physical disabilities have unique characteristics and experiences that fall into the broad range of human diversity. They belong as full participants in society. Social workers must focus on working in respectful partnerships with people with physical disabilities to change environments and attitudes. This will help build a just society that honors diversity. This entry addresses multiple factors that cause disability, from genetics to environment, as viewed through the medical model. The social model view of “the problem” is offered in comparison. It also introduces the wide diversity of people with physical disability. The entry discusses two major societal responses to physical disability. Environmental modification is one approach. A more recent approach, Universal Access, involves upfront design of environments to meet diverse needs. The final sections explain implications for social workers and lays groundwork for action. Creating access and respectful partnerships are foundations of the work ahead. It is difficult to define physical disability without situating the discussion in the model used to view and deal with human diversity. This discussion is based on the social model of disability, a view of disability that sees the environment as disabling, not the individual condition. Discussion of the medical model is offered as a contrast. (For a more complete discussion of disability models, see Mackelprang's Disability: An Overview in this publication.)