Historically, views on the causes of disability ranged from divine punishment, karma, or moral failing, to biological deficit in the post-Enlightenment era. Accordingly, disabled people were often regarded as objects of pity and charity, and later as appropriate recipients of medical treatment and welfare services.

In recent decades, a social conceptualization of disability emerged, with the so called ‘social model’ of disability coming to the fore. On the social model, disability is defined as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities”. This model mandates ameliorating the disadvantage facing disabled people through the removal of ‘social barriers’: practices and physical structures that exclude people with impairments from fully participating in social life.

This social conceptualization of disability prompted a shift from a ‘welfare-approach’ to a ‘rights-approach’ in the social response to disability, manifested in disability rights legislation in many jurisdictions and in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

This note discusses the concept of disability rights, the advantages and possible challenges in framing issues relating to disability in terms of rights.


* Analysis by

Dr. Adi Goldiner, Post Graduate Teaching Assistant, University College London

ENA Centre for Political Theory | Co-ordinator: Yiannis Kouris