Discourse in Action: Parents' use of medical and social models to resist disability stigma

Soc Sci Med. 2017 Jul;184:169-177. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.05.015. Epub 2017 May 6.


For parents of children with disabilities, stigmatization is part of everyday life. To resist the negative social and emotional consequences of stigma, parents both challenge and deflect social devaluations. Challenges work to upend the stigmatizing structure, while deflections maintain the interaction order. We examine how parents of children with disabilities deploy deflections and challenges, and how their stigma resistance strategies combine with available models of disability discourse. Disability discourse falls into two broad categories: medical and social. The medical model emphasizes diagnostic labels and treats impairment as an individual deficit, while the social model centralizes unaccommodating social structures. The social model's activist underpinnings make it a logical frame for parents to use as they challenge disability stigma. In turn, the medical model's focus on individual "improvement" seems to most closely align with stigma deflections. However, the relationship between stigma resistance strategies and models of disability is an empirical question not yet addressed in the literature. In this study, we examine 117 instances of stigmatization from 40 interviews with 43 parents, and document how parents respond. We find that challenges and deflections do not map cleanly onto the social or medical models. Rather, parents invoke medical and social meanings in ways that serve diverse ends, sometimes centralizing a medical label to challenge stigma, and sometimes recognizing disabling social structures, but deflecting stigma nonetheless.

Keywords: Disability; Medical and social model; Parents; Stigma; Stigma resistance; United States.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Disabled Persons / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Social Stigma*
  • United States