Thursday, 19 January 2012

Modelling disability #spartacusreport

Models. Not glamorous young men and women. Not scale representations of trains. But understandings of disability.

Models are simplified ways of describing systems: they help us understand what's going on, in a way that can influence social policy and public debate, and can also enable new and potentially more effective insights and methods of intervention,

So why am I telling you about them? Well, they've become very important in the welfare reform discussion.

In the Committee stages of the Welfare Reform Bill, the Government committed itself to the use of the social model of disability in the Bill. In the social model, disability arises from society's response to people with impairments. Physical, mental and sensory differences or impairments don't have to lead to disability unless society fails to react to them and include people regardless of their individual differences.

That puts the onus on society to make work, education etc accessible for disabled people. Disabled young people have just as high aspirations as their able-bodied peers, but are 2½ times as likely to be out of work, and those in work earn 11% less.

But earlier this week, when the Bill was being discussed in the House of Lords, Lord Freud announced that the Government had decided that the Bill should be based on the biopsychosocial model of disability instead. This model claims that biological, psychological and social factors all play a part in human functioning, in the context of disease or illness.

The biological component of the theory comes, clearly, from within the individual's body. The psychological part encompasses thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and looks for potential causes of a health problem such as lack of self-control, emotional turmoil, and negative thinking. The social part investigates how different social factors such as socioeconomic status, culture and technology can influence health.

A lot of its application is in illness behaviour. When someone becomes ill, they get certain rights (eg they don't have to work) but also certain responsibilities (eg they have to do what their doctor says and do their best to get well).

All sounds very sensible. Things worth taking into account. So what's the problem? Why am I writing a blog post about it all?

Well, for one, the biopsychosocial model is about health and illness, not about impairment and disability. It has nothing to say to the situation of someone who was, for instance, born with cerebral palsy. Even for the majority of us with long-term illnesses, "illness behaviour" is mainly irrelevant: we're not going to get better, no matter how hard we try.

Obviously some of us are going to recover, go back to work, lead normal lives again. That's wonderful. But many of us are not. I have progressive MS. I'm not going to be getting better - I'm going to get worse, and there is absolutely no way I'm fit to work at present.

But because the government has chosen the biopsychosocial model, there's a very real risk that after a year I'll be forced onto Jobseeker's Allowance: and face having it removed if I don't turn up for interviews because I'm unable to get out of bed. Or even, maybe, get a job, somehow (given the current climate), and get sacked because I fall asleep uncontrollably at my desk.

So, models. They're useful things, but they're kind of like jigsaw pieces. You can't just ram one in where you'd like it to go, and hope nobody'll notice - a bit of sky in the middle of the green grass, that sort of thing. The model has to fit. And the biopsychosocial model just doesn't.

PS I didn't want to make this post too long, so I'm stopping there, with models. It's very much worth your time reading up on the dubious nature of the DWP's links with the Unum Research Centre at Cardiff University, though. This is a good place to start.


  1. The problem IMHO is that a reputable holistic model has had its good name damaged by the Unum funded study that attempted to change the true meaning of the bps model.
    See my blog

  2. Hi Mark - thanks for your comment.

    I think it's a model that certainly has its uses. But those uses do not include the discussion of disability and long-term illness, for the reasons I gave above. For short-term illness, it can be very useful.

  3. nice idea, thanks for sharing...