What is Disability, Concept of Disability, Exploring Medical and Social Models


Disability means lacking one or more physical powers, such as the ability to walk or to coordinate one’s movements, as from the effects of a disease or accident, or through mental impairment. According to the UN Convention on the Rights Of Persons With Disabilities (“CRPD” or “Convention”) ratified by Pakistan in 2011, persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. 




Medical and Social Model

There are two main threads to the concept of disability: the medical model and the social model. Both models regard disability as a difficult predicament commonly faced by people; however, while the medical model looks at disability as a condition requiring medical intervention, the social model looks at it as a condition that requires the transformation of societal attitudes and state policies.

  1. The medical model views disability as an impairment due to various health-related factors that can be identified and eradicated through medical treatment. While the social model identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes, and exclusion by society, and argues that societal attitudes and the environment are the main barriers for people with disabilities. 
  2. The social model argues that Disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to participate in activities social, economic, and political on an equal footing with those with no impairments. “Disability is the outcome of an oppressive relationship between people with impairments and the rest of society”. It has been argued that society is the cause of disability and rejects the idea of it being a personal tragedy.

Social and Economic Inclusion

The social and economic inclusion of people with disabilities in development has not been realized, even though disability belongs to the socio-economic development agenda. There is a reluctance to consider disability from the viewpoint of investment. Human capital development such as education and employment are among the most important factors for inclusion and economic empowerment.

When these factors are made inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities, it not only leads to an improvement in their livelihoods but also improves the prospects of their families and society as a whole. Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the society in which he or she lives.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), an estimated 470 million of the world’s working-age are PWDs. Worldwide, one in six people, or around one billion, live with a disability. Of these approximately 470 million are of working age, including 238 million in Asia Pacific.  The unemployment among the PWDs is as high as 80 percent in some countries. Often employers assume that persons with disabilities are unable to work. In Pakistan, estimates of the number of persons living with disabilities vary between 3.3 million and 27 million.

Employment for People with Disabilities

Employment is equally important to all people, without it, social inclusion and economic independence are unlikely to be achieved. Among the crucial social functions that employment can facilitate are financial independence and social inclusion. It has also been found to improve social status, provide social support, and enable workers to contribute, thereby leading to an increase in self-worth.

Employment has the potential to improve a person’s financial situation, open up opportunities for social contact, build (new) friendships, and increase people’s self-esteem. By contrast, unemployment can cause not only poverty and social exclusion but also result in a lower sense of self-worth. The effects of unemployment on physical health like symptoms of somatization disorder, depression, and anxiety were significantly greater in unemployed than employed individuals.

The situation for people with disabilities may have consequences to a greater extent as they tend to be looked upon as dependents of their families and relatives and are not expected to be gainfully employed or independent. Work has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, central to all human societies.

One of the major difficulties faced by persons with disabilities is that employers have the erroneous assumption that these people will probably underperform in most areas of their duties something which is not the case. Another plausible issue is that when the majority of workplaces are not made accessible to people with disabilities, employers may feel that they will have to make an unwarranted investment to provide facilities for people with disabilities, and some do not believe in the employment potential of such people.

Rights-based Approach Towards Disability

The paradigm in disability has shifted from charity to investment, exclusion to inclusion, and sympathy to a rights-based approach towards disability. Disabled people initially were not considered worthy of any rights. The disabled were treated as abnormal or different from society and thus needed to be given medical treatment under the medical model. Under the social model, disability is explained as a condition created by society and the environment and not the result of an individual’s impairment.

The human rights model or rights-based model embodies the values or principles of dignity, respect, equality, and social justice for the disabled. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of 2006 (“CRPD” or “Convention”) created a binding framework for the rights-based model of disability law. Disabled persons by being a human have the right to enjoy life, liberty, equality, security, and dignity.

In Pakistan, policy approaches to disability have largely been focused on rehabilitation, welfare handouts, and related charity. This has changed since CRPD, which Pakistan ratified in 2011, but progress around building an inclusive society has been woefully slow. The Convention, which became operational in 2008, is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century and the first UN treaty protecting the fundamental rights of persons with disability. In line with the general discourse around development-related issues today, the treaty moves towards viewing disability from a rights-based approach.

CRPD works to promote and protect the human rights of people with disabilities. Article 27 explicitly recognizes their right to work on an equal basis with others. The same article further emphasizes the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labor market and work environment that is open, inclusive, and accessible to people with disabilities.

CRPD also prohibits all forms of employment discrimination, promotes access to vocational training, promotes opportunities for self-employment, and calls for reasonable accommodation in the workplace. The new dimension in the treatment of persons with disabilities, which the Convention sanctions, is the departure from the perception of people with disabilities as “objects” of mercy, treatment, and social protection, to the perception of disabled people as “subjects” possessing rights, which they can claim, make decisions and be active members of society.

This legal act is based on values arising from fundamental human rights. It guarantees people with disabilities equal access to institutions and the possibility of pursuing social activities and fulfilling the roles on the same principles as those who are able-bodied.


Our Constitution, as a whole, does not distinguish between a person with or without disabilities. It recognizes the inherent dignity of a human being; and the equal and inalienable rights of all the people as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace.

Every person is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein, without distinction of any kind. It, therefore, applies equally to persons with disabilities, guaranteeing them full enjoyment of their fundamental rights without discrimination. The triangular construct of the right to life, dignity, and equality under the Constitution provides a robust platform for mainstreaming persons with disabilities. 

“The purpose of the constitutional right to human dignity is to realize the constitutional value of human dignity; to realize a person’s humanity; his free will; the freedom to shape his life and fulfill himself. It is a person’s freedom to write his life story.” Such vibrancy and vitality are the hallmarks of a living constitution in a democracy.

What is the new law for disabled people in Pakistan?

The new Disability Rights Act, approved on 10 January 2022, provides a comprehensive legal framework to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities in Pakistan.

Use of inappropriate and insensitive words

It is also observed that words like “disabled”, “physically handicapped”, and “mentally retarded” deeply bruise and offend the human dignity of persons with disabilities. The Federal Government and Provincial Governments should not use these words in official correspondence, directives, notifications, and circulars and shift to “persons with disabilities” or “persons with different abilities”.


In conclusion, the discussion highlights the intricate nature of disability, emphasizing the necessity of viewing it from both medical and social perspectives. While the medical model focuses on medical interventions, the social model stresses the importance of societal changes to eliminate barriers faced by individuals with disabilities.

Despite the global recognition of disability as a developmental concern, there persists a hesitancy to invest in inclusive initiatives like education and employment. This reluctance contributes to the high unemployment rates among persons with disabilities and perpetuates misconceptions about their abilities.

The transition from a charity-centric approach to a rights-based outlook, as exemplified by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), signifies significant progress. However, the advancement towards creating inclusive societies, particularly in nations like Pakistan, has been gradual.

In essence, the conclusion emphasizes the fundamental importance of upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of all individuals, irrespective of their abilities. It underscores the necessity for concerted efforts to dismantle societal barriers, advocate for inclusive policies, and ensure that persons with disabilities can fully participate and contribute to society on an equitable footing.