Shifting Sands


Sand dunes are masses of loose sand that move across the ground and are built by aeolian (wind) or fluvial (flow of water) processes . Dunes come in diverse shapes and sizes which are determined by the environmental, soil/sand characteristics as well as their formative processes.

Fundamentally, sand grains are blown up along the stoss (the windward side of a dune) until they reach the top; then they drop down into the shelter of the slip face on lee side of the dune. Whichever way they are formed, dunes are beautiful land features and always a sight to behold. They offer some of the best opportunities for viewing as well recreation.

Just like shifting sands determine the grandeur of the dunes they form, shifting  awareness and models are key to forming grand solutions around disability. Models of Disability reflect ideas and attitudes. They they show who has power and legitimacy i.e.

  • Who gets what, when and how.
  • Who are the ‘gatekeepers’ of finances, resources and access to services.
  • Who decides policies and practices that affect disabled persons.

A brief History of Time – Not the Stephen Hawkins version

Over the years, how societies and policy makers think about disability has evolved through 4 key Models of Disability namely:

  • The charity model
  • The medical model
  • The social model
  • The human-rights model

Each model has its own set of expectations and power relations regarding the role of society, professionals and disabled people hence important for all to understand them.

People Discussion Meeting Give Help Donate Charity Concept

The Charity Model portrays the individual  as victims or objects of pity. With this approach, persons with disabilities are perceived as passive recipients of services, and in need of charitable care hence;

  • Regarded as ‘unfortunate’, ‘dependent’, or ‘helpless’.
  • Have Little or no voice in making decisions about their lives.
  • Assumed they cannot contribute to society or support themselves.
  • Viewed and kept as a separate group;
  • Aid, services or support provided by specialist organizations.
  • Aid provided as a ‘kindness’ and not a right.


In the 19th century and with increasing medical knowledge, the Medical Model emerged focusing on disability as a health issue and viewing the individual’s impairment as the ‘problem’. This model assumes that the individual can be ‘cured’ or ‘fixed’, and that efforts to support the individual should focus on trying to find such a cure. With the individual viewed as a patient in needs of diagnosis and medical intervention, the following are synonymous with the model;

  • An increase of special schools for disabled children and similar institutions,
  • Seeking to ‘cure’, ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ the impairment so the individual fits into society.
  • Disabled people have passive role while medical experts decide what they want or need.
  • No acknowledgement of social or environmental barriers.
  • Few or no rights for the individual with a disability.
  • Specialist, segregated services, exclusion from mainstream medical (and educational/employment) services.


The Social Model emerged in 1970s with Global Disability Rights movement and has become the dominant approach promoted today. This model evolved in response to the dissatisfaction of persons with disabilities to being treated only as charity or medical ‘cases’ and focuses on the barriers in society that disable and exclude people. This model highlights that it is not their impairment that causes a person to be unable to participate in society, but the barriers that exist within attitudes, environments, policies and practices. This model therefore focuses on removing barriers rather than ‘fixing’ the person. The Social Model has brought forth some big wins such as;

  • Introduction of anti-discrimination and human rights legislation
  • More inclusive approaches to school, work, mainstreaming of services.
  • Disabled people playing a proactive role in development of disability policy and practice.


A Human Rights Model has developed out of Social Model over the past decade and views exclusion from services is a violation of an individual’s human rights. This model led to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).


As with the social model, the Human Rights Model focuses on the need for society to change. The Human Rights Model sees persons with impairments as an integral part of a diverse human society and culture. It stresses that all humans have rights, and that all rights apply to all humans. It stresses that persons with disabilities are rights holders and decision-makers in their own lives.


Leonard Cheshire the NGO I am working in, has its work centered around the social/human-rights model. Knowledge gained on the Models of Disability has given me a deep appreciation of how contrasting views of “disability” determine who sets the agenda and priorities e.g. for public , heath, education and social services.

It is estimated that 15% of the global population lives with some form of disability (WHO/World Bank, 2011) of which current estimates suggest that there are roughly 93 million children aged under 14 with moderate or severe disabilities globally.

People with disabilities are among the poorest and most marginalized of all the world’s people and there is an urgent need to shift our perspectives; Individually first, then in our communities, at a national level and globally. This change MUST start with you and me.

What is your view of disability in society? Have your sands shifted?


Leviticus 19:14 “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”





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