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Disability equality toolkit: Social model of disability

How to use the social model to bargain for disability equality in schools and colleges.

Disability toolkit graphic

Disability equality toolkit

Useful tools for reps to help them support disabled members.

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The social model of disability argues that people are disabled not by their impairment or difference but by barriers in society. These barriers can be physical but, just as often, they are the result of other people’s attitudes. Removing these barriers – which can sometimes involve quite small modifications to our own behaviour or ways of thinking – can create greater equality and promote the inclusion of Disabled people.

“The social model frames disability as something that is socially constructed. Disability is created by physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers and these can be changed and eliminated. This takes us away from ‘blaming’ the individual for their shortcoming. It states that impairment is, and always will be, present in every known society, and therefore the only logical position to take, is to plan and organise society in a way that includes, rather than excludes disabled people.”
Barbara Lisicki, 2013

Using the social model of disability in schools/colleges

  • Show this leaflet to your workplace rep. If you are the NEU workplace rep discuss with your union group ways in which, by using the social model, some changes could be negotiated in your workplace to create disability equality for staff and students – you may find the Suggested Reasonable Adjustments advice in the Disability Equality Toolkit useful
  • Share the social model of disability information with your school leaders and chair of governors and discuss the changes suggested by disabled and non-disabled colleagues that can be made in your workplace to improve disability equality
  • Review existing policies and practices to reflect the social model. Examples can include but are not limited to how language is used to describe disabled people and the use of appropriate images and language.
  • Negotiate implementing a reasonable adjustment policy
  • Use the reasonable adjustment passport to document agreed adjustments and log reviews
  • Negotiate implementing a disability leave policy – remember, disability leave can be used as a reasonable adjustment .

Reasonable adjustments can include:

  • making physical changes to the workplace, like installing a ramp for a wheelchair user or an audio-visual fire alarm for a deaf person
  • letting a disabled person work somewhere else, such as on the ground floor for someone with impaired mobility
  • changing equipment, for instance raising or lowering a white board or changing the lighting
  • allowing employees who become disabled to make a phased return to work, including flexible hours or part-time working
  • offering employees training opportunities, recreation and refreshment facilities

For more detailed guidance on reasonable adjustments and how to argue for them, refer to our list and links on ‘What we currently have on the website’.

Accessing additional funding for support at School or College

If you require further help and support, in addition to the reasonable adjustments already provided by your employer, Access to Work might pay for:

  • additional support in the classroom, e.g. a qualified person to undertake P.E. lessons or a technician to set up Science experiments
  • specialist equipment or adaptations in the classroom
  • special equipment or software
  • note-takers
  • hearing loop systems
  • a support worker
  • disability awareness training for your colleagues

Social model thinking and the curriculum

Social model thinking should also lie at the centre of a disability equality approach to the curriculum.

NEU primary/early years classroom resource

Child's drawing

The Full Story

How books for early years and primary age children can be used to promote disability inclusion.

The Full Story will help you to promote disability inclusion and good outcomes for children and young people through reading about the world around us. We have based this resource on the social model of disability, which means recognising that people are disabled by the attitude and structures around them, in society, rather than by their individual impairments. It is society that needs to be adapted, not disabled people.

The resource is designed to help you include every child and make sure every child sees themselves, their families and friends represented positively in their school.

Order these books for your school or classroom. Share this resource with colleagues and discuss attitudes towards disability in your staff meetings and training days. Reflect with colleagues on what opportunities are being missed to talk positively the experiences and perspectives of disabled people, within your day-to-day teaching. This can help build understanding that disabled children are equal, and usual rather than different, special or hidden.

See below some example questions to use with children about disability using the social model. Two of the books featured in the resource booklet are:

  • What the Jackdaw Saw by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt.
  • Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson and Karen George.


  • Think about all the examples of accessible environments we see around us at school, on streets, public transport and leisure centres. How do familiar things like ramps, lifts, hearing loops, large print books or textured pavements help to make the world fairer and more accessible for people with impairments?
  • Consider whether, instead of focusing on how some people ‘can’t’ do things in the same way that others can, it can be helpful to think about how they do them differently.


  • Do we sometimes change the way we do things to ensure that everyone can join in with activities?
  • What does our school do – and what can we do ourselves – to try to include everyone?

These two books illustrate the social model of disability in ways that are both fun and empowering.

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