DSARC Conference

The ICF – Best of both worlds or the medical model in disguise?

David Webb
DSARC Conference, Sydney, June 2009


In little more than a generation, the social model of disability has been spectacularly successful in transforming contemporary thinking about disability, culminating in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  In recent years, however, a debate has arisen between a ‘strong’ social model of disability, where the distinctive feature of disability is the social prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities, and a ‘weak’ version of the model where the medical dimension of disability is given more consideration, though still within the wider, social context.

The ongoing tension between the social and medical models of disability is reflected in disability policies and programs around the world including, for instance, in the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) of the World Health Organisation.  Advocates of the ICF at the WHO describe it as a marriage of the social and medical models, the “best of both worlds”, whereas others have called it the medical model in disguise.  Similarly, tensions continue around the emphasis on the rehabilitation of individuals (medical model) rather than of their social environment (social model), though the UN Convention signals a shift in this emphasis.