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Treating disabled as 'patients' leads to stigmas and discrimination

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Monday, 7 March 2005

It is disheartening, to say the least, when I can still pick up a book or read a call for unity to fight for social justice which omits or does not give equal weight to the disability social movement against oppression (Marta Russell 2002).

Today disability is studied in two ways. The first is the medical model of disability, which looks at disability as a medical illness that either has to be medically cured at an individual level, or controlled to allow the person with a disability to become a normal functioning member of society. On the other hand, there is the social model of disability that understands disability to be the outcome of social, political and economic processes, which have an impact on the lives of people identified as disabled, as well as on the lives of people who are not identified as disabled.

Whereas the medical model focuses on the individual as a “patient”, in contrast, the social model focuses on the infinite social processes and dynamics of disability. The social model is empathetic to the view that disability discrimination and prejudice is made stronger by a lack of accessible and socially and economically rewarding information, technology, architecture, features and events.


The antiquated view of the medical model of disability has persistently helped to create stigmas and disutilities upon “people with disabilities”. The medical model believes that “people with disabilities” may never attain acceptable social norms without a complete cure. This leaves those that cannot be cured, with an impossible dilemma which leads to the social, economic, political and cultural marginalisation of many “people with disabilities”.

My own experiences reveal the failures of the medical model as a source of stigma and discrimination. Whereas the social model is to challenge such stigmas and discrimination that have helped to create the differences in approaches to ability and disability that are not just matters of academic debate.

Personally the gradual progression of my disease (Friedrich's Ataxia) has created a world of exclusion from the norm of society. At the same time, in being motivated by the hope of better times to come, I have engaged and succeeded in the world of academia. As I will argue, the social model allows many “people with disabilities” to attempt and possibly achieve their goals, with less harassment from unjustified stereotypes and therefore discrimination. Ideally the social model of disability could stop most forms of discrimination against “people with disabilities”.

For example, I have lived on my own for the past 15 years, which has been extremely difficult, but has allowed me to shake off many of the day-in day-out shackles of most established medical beliefs concerning people that are severely disabled. I completed a double degree at Monash University (Peninsula campus) that entailed a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Business (Accounting). Then I went to Monash University (Clayton campus) to complete a qualifying year and an MA (by research) itself. I have now completed (yet to be assessed) a PhD at the University of Melbourne.

The past four years have been my most successful to date, realising many academic accomplishments. I have been able to achieve these outcomes even though some of my physical abilities are severely reduced from those of society’s so-called “norms”. For example, I can type at a speed of three words per minute.

The following extract, from an article I had published in issue 52 of the Journal of Australian Political Economy, reveals in more detail the results of the medical model:


The medical model has traditionally placed many other stereotypes, stigma and disutilities upon me and many “people with disabilities”. For example, I have been pitied, conveniently verbally misunderstood, looked down on for my abnormal structure and characteristics, characterised as a loser. Over the years I have come to understand most people's roles in the barriers to social inclusion as due to their lack of accessible information about disability. If, according to the medical model, such problems are a reflection of my severe disability, what would be the best model to explain the progress of my PhD in Sociology, which I plan to submit early in 2004?

In 2004, by the time July came round, I was totally exhausted and run down. With the assistance of family and my local GP, I gained entry into hospital, as I had aching pains in my right wrist that made my routine transfers hard to manage. These outcomes temporarily controlled the quality of my life at home and directly affecting my ability to complete my thesis.

While medical care is clearly crucial in the lives of many people with disabilities. There is a need for a closer connection to be made between medical care and the social model of disability, which has the potential to make society more inclusive of “people with disabilities”. Most of my life - with Friedreich’s Ataxia (the disability) and especially over the past 15 years - has been characterised by my limited exposure to the medical model of disability.

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This paper was given at the AGM of Disability Justice Advocacy Inc.

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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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