Discourse on the Medical Model of Disability (repost)

We talk a lot about disability and language in Cripz, so to help get you in the Holiday Spirit, here’s a short writing assignment Jeff did during his Masters Degree on Foucault, Discourse and Disability.


The cover of History of Sexuality, by Michel Foucault
When asked, Dr Freud responded "Why do YOU think there's a spring on the cover?" Regrettably, we all know the answer. Damn you Freud.

Throughout both The History of Sexuality and The Discourse on Language, Michel Foucault attempts to draw an intimate link between power structures and the formation of discursive communities, explaining that discourse does not appear out of thin air, but rather, is “…at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures” (Discourse on Language, 216). Foucault then explains in History of Sexuality that discourse, especially the discourse on sexuality, is largely informed through bourgeois ideology, the dominant class, who are attempt to structure the language and perceptions surrounding a specific discursive formation with the hope that their ideologies will make a state hegemony.

One of the most important factors in this process is the notion of truth. In the same way that Gramsci talks about the struggle over hegemony, Foucault felt an important step to the structuring of discourse was an element of truth. He is attempting to explain that people are not stupid and will not simply accept anything they are told, contrary to the hypodermic needle theories of Adorno and Horkheimer. Rather, Foucault advocates that people must some evidence of factuality, which once present, are more likely to allow an ideology to become part of the popular discourse.

One means of attaching truth to discourse is through the inclusion of expert or scientific opinion. By attributing terminologies or perceptions to an person who is perceived as being an expert in their prospective field, the claims are granted a certain level of acceptance, simply because the lay person assumes that these experts must know what they are talking about – thanks to the discourse on expertise. Foucault examines this in the formation of the discourse on sexuality, where medical science has been used to framing the debate/discussion on sexuality.

It is interesting to look at this notion of expertise as veracity, especially in concerns with the construction of the discursive formation of disability. Currently there are two different discursive models of disability, the medical and the socially constructed models. While the socially constructed model is gaining steam, predominantly, it has been the medical model that has structured the conversation on disability.

Under this model of disability, the urge to diagnose disability takes predominance over all other perceptions. Medical professionals who work with the disabled are creating the language and structure the discussion of disability, largely based on their medical training. Because a doctor’s goal is to treating or curing disablement, their interaction with patients are structured around diagnosing and categorizing problems through standardized language.

As the lay public looks to understand how to perceive and deal with disability, the medical professionals have become considered the experts in the field and their language and practices have been adopted by the general population. The result is that most believe disability must always be identified and categorized, hence people constantly asking what someone with a disability “has,” along with the promotion that “disability” is a negative attribute that must be overcome or cured. This emphasis on curing/overcoming disability ultimately leads to both the pity that people show toward the disabled, along with the general perception that disability is unequivocally linked to “loss” or “dehumanization”.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.