Radio 4 and the social model of disability

It was disappointing to hear on last Friday night’s 7pm news bulletin on Radio 4 someone described as “severely handicapped”.

The term used should have been “severely disabled”.

I am by no means the PC police and I recognise an institution like the BBC (and particularly Radio 4) probably doesn’t want another ticking off by anybody about its use of language. But in this case (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming), what flows from the language is so important that I wanted to make a note of it.

There are various models of disability. The two most common are the “medical” model and the “social” model.

The medical model focuses on the medical condition of a person – their impairment, their disease, their ‘handicap’. And it looks for ways for these to be diagnosed, categorised and ultimately cured. What flows from the medical model of disability is typically a focus on someone’s physical or mental condition rather than the person themselves.

The social model of disability puts the person at the centre. It says that a person is disabled by society around them – not just physical barriers such as steps or revolving doors, but also by attitudes towards disabled people (such as pity, charity or fear).

Though a disabled person still has an impairment (i.e. in the broadest sense their condition), what makes them disabled is not their condition, it’s society.

Many important things flow from this shift in thinking (for anyone who is interested in more about different models of disability and their implications this guide is an excellent introduction). One of the main implications is in the use of language to describe disability and impairment. To talk of “able-bodied” people is to approach the topic from the perspective of the medical model because you’re thinking in terms of what people can and can’t do. To talk of non-disabled people, however, is to take a social model approach, since you’re noting that there are some people who aren’t disabled by society around them.

The social model is incredibly important because it changes the way people think about disability. Instead of thinking “what’s wrong” with the disabled person, it makes you think about how your behaviour and your attitude is preventing the disabled person from being treated equally. By supporting this through positive language – namely language informed directly by the social model of disability approach – so we support disability equality more widely.

Which is why Radio 4’s use of ‘handicapped’ was so disappointing because, at the most fundamental level, it reinforces the medical model of disability and the idea that the problem lies with the person, not society.

I understand from friends and colleagues that this isn’t a one-off. Without wishing to be patronising, sanctimonious or plain rude, I’d therefore like to offer a free session on the social model of disability for any of Radio 4’s newsreaders, continuity announcers or presenters. I have no doubt that they will have received as much training and support as is humanly possible on this topic and much else besides. But whilst these occasional references to medical model-type thinking keep happening, so I’ll keep offering until they accept.

(If you agree with this post and hear of any instances on the BBC – or indeed elsewhere – of a medical model approach, please feel free to let the BBC know about my offer. There are many Radio 4 newsreaders, continuity announcers and presenters on Twitter, for example, so any retweets of this post or @ messages directed at those lovely folk might do the trick. You can get in touch with me via Twitter @rich_w.)


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

4 thoughts on “Radio 4 and the social model of disability”

  1. Great post Rich. I suspect the vast majority of people, even those who have been through media training and equal opportunities training, don’t really understand the difference between a medical/social model to disability. Your post sets it out really well. Maybe as well as your offer to R4 we should start a campaign? Surely we know enough designers between us to get something put together and out there? Let me know if you’re interested.
    I remember a mate of mine who used to do awareness training who would wear a flat cap….and take it off and sit with it as a begging bowl when explaining where the term handicapped came from – that usually stuck with people. I can feel an animation coming on 😉

  2. I sometimes surprise people by being vehemently opposed to ‘handicapped’ while often describing myself as a ‘cripple’.
    For me it’s about awareness. Almost everyone recognises that ‘cripple’ is offensive and when I use it their jaw rightly drops.
    But we’ve not yet moved far enough aware from the time when ‘handicapped’ was acceptable, so if I used it they might not get that I’m using it to be shocking or with a sense of reclamation and think I’m using it with sincerity.

  3. Newsreaders are paid to read the news.
    Their professionalism is marked by their ability to read the words in front of them without hesitation, stammer, and most importantly without acting as editor.
    Newsreaders, in most cases, do not write the text of the news. They may review it, but in many cases it is put in front of them minutes before entering the studio, because the news cycle is ever shorter.
    The people who write the news are often taking-in stories from multiple sources, screens, text feeds, bits of paper; their heads are required to be in twenty places at one time. Depending on what time of day or night it is, they may be serving one or all of the following: a programme production team, a chief editor, the voice-type of the reader if known, various audiences targets, each with its own vocabulary, grammatical structure, and tone. For example, Radio 1 Newsbeat employs a fast-paced flow relevant to younger audiences, World Service global bulletins must avoid the use of colloquial or familiar language and/or linguistic concepts that are complex, Radio 4 bulletins employ a far more subtle use of language due to their highly sophisticated English-speaking audience.
    Add to this the tricky issues of BBC corporate and/or legal compliance, liability risk assessment which happens on-the-fly (and for which a simple quick mistake can cost someone their job), impending news cycle deadlines literally flying past the desk at a rate of knots, people covering for other people because someone else is on maternity leave, plain old human error. Doesn’t it become a little clearer as to why even a brilliant news writer with hundreds of courses in political correctness and 30 years of experience under their belt can make a simple mistake?
    And yet, the intelligent, perceptive listener sits at home listening to the voice he knows so well, as if this were the only news reader in the world. Slight intonation changes in the voice are detected by the paranoid mind as to confirm that the Beeb does indeed have a political bias. More to the point, when a reader does something so awful as to use the word “handicapped”, this can mean but one thing: systemic problems in the way the BBC perceives the disabled.
    Okay, I know you aren’t claiming systemic problems. In fact your post was worded rather sensitively.
    My point is that I don’t understand how one drop in an ocean – an ocean that employs countless medical consultants, philosophical thinkers, social and political commentators, and an ocean that commits hours of its weekly schedule to discuss the very issues you have raised above – how one drop in that ocean can cause you to be disappointed? How you can follow-on from this disappointment by discussing what “flows from the language” as if someone were sat in a room thinking, “I know, let’s use the term Severely Handicapped to show that we think the world views them as a problem”.
    On a secondary point, I’d like to ask a question.
    You talk about how the word ‘disability’ is more acceptable because it refers to the way that society views them.
    But why do you take the word ‘disabled’ to mean this, rather than meaning what some people would understand by the word: that the person is disabled within their own right?
    Depending on how you perceive the word ‘disabled’, therefore, couldn’t this be just as damaging?
    And therefore, because your argument relies on how the word ‘disabled’ is perceived in the first place, doesn’t this mean you are splitting hairs?
    Maybe I have missed something, I am new to the subject and am interested in trying to understand more.
    One final question, and this gets a bit more abstract / philosophical.
    Why is it okay to blame society’s reaction to a disabled person, rather than to accept that the problem does indeed lie with the person? Whilst this question may sound callous, I am genuinely interested in trying to understand why a physical disability should be normalised. And where one draws the line in defining a disability. For example, I sometimes help old grannies to cross the road, or smile and say “please take this seat”. Sometimes a granny smiles back and takes the offer, sometimes the granny is offended that I see her as an old granny. See my point?
    The reason I ask is that my younger adopted brother has been very damaged since birth, had polio which removed his use of legs and is severely brain damaged due to malnutrition from a very young age, with little to no communication, severe autism, and an eating disorder preventing him from eating solids (most probably due to excessive force-feeding in an orphanage). My parents and I argued for a while over whether we should ignore his problems and treat him as if he weren’t so damaged. They argued we shouldn’t draw attention to his problems, I argued that by drawing attention away from his problems it would make it even more difficult for him in the long term.
    Thanks for reading, if you got this far 🙂

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