What the social model of disability tells us about working parenthood

This ramp allows wheelchair users to access the train. Flexible working hours allow parents to access the workforce.
This ramp allows wheelchair users to access the train. Flexible working hours allow parents to access the workforce.


“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

–  “Fundamental Principles of Disability – Comments on the discussion held between the Union and the Disability Alliance on 22nd November, 1975”

In the 1970s, there was a huge shift in the way disability activists and sociologists started to understand and present disability.  The previous ‘medical model’ of disability had focused on specific physical impairments: people were disabled because they couldn’t see, or they couldn’t walk, or they couldn’t navigate social situations well.  The social model of disability instead emphasised that it was only through living in a society that refused to accommodate that these impairments became ‘disabilities’.  The world decides what people should be capable of doing, and it structures itself around that. People ‘should’ be capable of climbing stairs, so ramps and lifts aren’t standard.  People ‘should’ be able to see and hear, so signs and alarms are visual or sound-based.  People ‘should’ be able to work 40 hours a week, so we have a working week of five 8-hour days.  Anyone who doesn’t meet these physical benchmarks is considered ‘disabled’ – the world decides that it is they and their impairments that are the problem, not the society they live in.

The benchmark for deciding what counts as a ‘disability’ is completely arbitrary.  It’s considered reasonable that ‘able people’ might not want or be able to walk to the 30th floor of an office block, or work a 70-hour week, or read 8-point text, even though there are plenty of people who can do these things. The social model of disability argues that ‘disability’ can be eradicated by moving this benchmark, making adjustments for people’s different ability levels by providing ramps, Braille signs and printers, flexible working hours and other such adjustments, so that people with such impairments (who represent one end of one scale of a many-factored spectrum of ability rather than a separate category) can participate fully in our society.

How does this relate to working parents? In the working world, we have a very clear idea of what workers ‘should’ be able to do and what they ‘should’ need. Worker can work a forty-hour week, and commit to their hours well in advance and offer their employers flexibility. Workers need drinking water, bathrooms and rest areas. They may even need places to park their cars or to sleep and shower. They need paid holiday and paid sick leave, adequate breaks and working weeks which leave enough time for rest and self-care. But parents have a special, additional set of needs. We need time off to recover from childbirth, and time to give care to our children when they are very small.  We need childcare if we return to work before our children are at school. We need to know our hours in advance to plan our childcare, but have the flexibility to cope with the sudden tummy bug, or the school play. We might even like a work environment which allows us to work alongside our children as much as possible, finding creative solutions to childcare.

It’s an ongoing argument in most countries as to how many of these needs employers should be obliged to meet. But just as social theorists of disability can speculate about a world where people are valued for their skills and talents and any accommodations they might need are not viewed as a subtraction from their worth, I think parents can imagine a world where instead of begging a special dispensation to procreate, the needs of carers are built into the heart of our working culture. A world where flexibility, parental leave, high quality childcare and children’s integration into our working lives are core values of any good employer, rather than a favour graciously and conditionally bestowed upon us.

I hope that this might lead to the development of a more balanced and compassionate working culture for everyone.  “Why should you get nine months off because you had a baby?” the argument goes; “Can’t I have nine months off to go to Australia/learn to paint/volunteer for charity?”. Why not? Why can’t we hope for a world where this sort of compassion is something employers give willingly, in return for the greater loyalty and productivity they get from a contented workforce?

I’m optimistic we’ll see this happen. Fifty years ago the workforce was overwhelmingly made up of able-bodied men, and the presence of women and people with disabilities is something our cultures are still adjusting to. We’ve already seen a lot of cultural and legal change surrounding parental leave, and I think an increased recognition that accommodations for workers with different needs are worth making, and no-one should have to sacrifice their health or their family’s wellbeing in order to fit in with a preconceived notion of a productive working week looks like. But campaigners for parental rights and the rights of people with disabilities at work have a lot of common ground, and working together might help us achieve a more compassionate working culture for everyone.


I'm currently trying to finish off my PhD in neuroscience and my medical training. I hope to get a proper job sometime in my 30s. I have a toddler who is, naturally, the bestest, most gifted, prettiest and nicest child to walk this earth, at least until I can persuade my partner to have another. I plan to use this platform to rant semi-coherently about people willfully misunderstanding neuroscience in the service of their favorite parenting soapbox, as well as trawling Medline for interesting stuff, so you don't have to.

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  1. I would LOVE to live in a society where workers are treated with this level of compassion and humanity! I’m not as hopeful as you, but I very much hope that I’m wrong.

  2. Love this argument.

    On a slightly related note, this reminds me of an episode of This American Life where journalists’ investigation of increasing rates of people getting benefits for disability found that people from poorer backgrounds with less education were unable to work the sort of physically strenuous jobs available to them. There was a great scene where a judge asks a man what his disability is. The man replies that he has diabetes and high blood pressure. The judge, clearly insinuating that the man is gaming the system, replies, “So do I.” What the judge fails to realize is that he has a job where he can sit all day, where the guy in front of him doesn’t possess the skill set for anything other than jobs that require physical labor. But people with sit-down jobs set the standards. And parents who either have a dedicated SAHP or a nanny usually occupy the most powerful positions in government and businesses, so they set the rules without an understanding of what more involved working parents needs are.

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