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Disability theorists have debated at length how disability should be defined. The theoretical roots for these debates reside in models which reflect the socio cultural beliefs of any given society. For example in the United Kingdom the disabled peoples movement, scholars, activists and practitioners construct debates around two distinctly different models of understanding what disability is. The 'social' and 'medical/individual' models of disability. In America debates focus upon the 'structural and 'minority' models. The medical/individual model is an assumption that disability is located with an individual who has an impairment. The social model challenges the medical/individual model through the idea that disability is constructed through social, structural and environmental barriers not an individual’s impairment. The minority model sees a lack of equal rights as a primary impediment to equality between able and disabled populations; and the structural model looks to environmental factors as the cause of disability.
The field of academic study of disability is growing worldwide; one of its major backers, the transnational Society for Disability Studies (US), took up the task in the mid-1990s to create an official "definition" for what the field involves. It offers the following working guidelines for any program that describes itself as 'Disability Studies':
- It should be interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary. Disability sits at the center of many overlapping disciplines in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Programs in Disability Studies should encourage a curriculum that allows students, activists, teachers, artists, practitioners, and researchers to engage the subject matter from various disciplinary perspectives.
- It should challenge the view of disability as an individual deficit or defect that can be remedied solely through medical intervention or rehabilitation by "experts" and other service providers. Rather, a program in disability studies should explore models and theories that examine social, political, cultural, and economic factors that define disability and help determine personal and collective responses to difference. At the same time, Disability Studies should work to de-stigmatize disease, illness, and impairment, including those that cannot be measured or explained by biological science. Finally, while acknowledging that medical research and intervention can be useful, Disability Studies should interrogate the connections between medical practice and stigmatizing disability.
- It should study national and international perspectives, policies, literature, culture, and history with an aim of placing current ideas of disability within their broadest possible context. Since attitudes toward disability have not been the same across times and places, much can be gained by learning from these other experiences.
- It should actively encourage participation by disabled students and faculty, and should ensure physical and intellectual access.
- It should make it a priority to have leadership positions held by disabled people; at the same time it is important to create an environment where contributions from anyone who shares the above goals are welcome.
However, the actual scope of disability studies differs from country to country in spite of its common core. Some, such as the United Kingdom, tend to see the field primarily as belonging only to disabled people and the disability activism they might tend to promote; in the United States, by contrast, a much wider range of professions, such as sociology and social work more generally, which involves both able-bodied and disabled people, may be involved. One of the earliest academic publications in the area was 'Deformity as Device in the Twentieth-Century Australian Novel' (1991), a PhD thesis, at the University of Tasmania, by CA. Cranston.
The social model of disability is expanded to chronic illness and to the broader work of the medical humanities. Practitioners are working towards improving the healthcare for disabled people through disability studies. This multi-disciplinary field of enquiry draws on the experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities to address discrimination. Inclusion of disability studies in medical curriculum is being reported as a preliminary step towards bringing medical humanities into classrooms. Infinite Ability has done some preliminary work in India to introduce disability studies to medical students.  
Disability studies is not without its critics. It has been suggested that the dominant social model it uses, which developed in the 1970s and served its purpose well through that era, has now been outgrown, and needs major developments. One major area of contention is the frequent exclusion of the personal experience of impairment, cognitive disability, and illness, which is often left out of most discussion in these circles in the name of "focused" academic discourse. Another concern is the ever-present possibility of a drift towards identity politics in the discipline and also within the disability rights movement as a whole. The social model of disability separates physical impairment from social disability, and in its most rigid form does not accept that impairment can cause disability at all. Scholars are increasingly recognizing that the effects of impairment form a central part of many disabled people's experience, and that these effects must be included for the social model to still be a valid reflection of that experience. Slogan "the personal is political" has been particularly influential in these developments.
Disability studies has also been criticised for its failure to engage with other forms of sociopolitical oppression, such as racism, sexism or homophobia, both as they may apply to disabled people in these oppressed groups, and also in disability studies' ability (or lack thereof) to "unite" with these other movements in common struggle. As a relatively new discipline, critics allege disability studies seems to have made very little progress in this area, in spite of recently published writings which deal with these very topics. Examples include Christopher Bell’s posthumous volume on Blackness and Disability; the work of Robert McRuer which both queers disability and engages with issues of neoliberal economic oppression; and Ellen Samuels’ explorations of gender, queer sexualities, and disability. Additionally, postsecondary Disability Studies programs increasingly engage with the intersectionality of oppression by adopting explicitly interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary frameworks, and by offering courses focused on the links between disability and other grounds of discrimination. The 2009 publication of Fiona Kumari Campbell’s "Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness" signalled a new direction of research — studies in ableism, moving beyond preoccupations with disability to explore the maintenance of abledness in sexed, raced and modified bodies.
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