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University of Chicago Law Review


A social model of disability relates a person's disadvantage to the combination of personal traits and social setting. The model appears to have had a profound impact on academics, politics, and law since the 1970s. Scholars have debated the model's force but its limitations are more severe than have been recognized. This Article claims that the model, like all social construction accounts, has essentially no policy implications. Its impact depends on normative commitments developed by some other logic, such as membership in the disability rights movement or adherence to versions of libertarian, utilitarian, or egalitarian theory that are triggered by the model's causation story. At the same time, a normative framework within which the social model is relevant may suggest not only policy goals but an institutional design. These points are illustrated by recent controversies involving genetic screening, cochlear implants, and sign language communities. Contrary to impressions left in the law literature, the social model has nothing to say about the proper response to such developments, although the model might have a mediated influence on our sense of the best decisionmakers.

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