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Michigan State University Journal of Medicine and Law

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disabilities and mental illness, social model of disability


Law | Law and Psychology | Medical Jurisprudence


Our society and laws allow a space for a multitude of identities and forms of expression. Many kinds of differences are legally protected in various ways, such as differences in race, religion, and gender. Sometimes protection takes the form of requiring social institutions to adapt to the unique needs of certain individuals or groups. Rights for disabled individuals, as exemplified by the Americans with Disabilities Act, rest on the principle that impairment disables because the world is structured around an incompatible model of human ability; not because of a fundamental deficit within the individual. This conception, termed the social model of disability, functions well for the paradigmatic physical impairments such as a paraplegic in a wheelchair, but not all impairments fall so neatly into this framework. While the social model of dis ability has been essential in the evolution of disability rights law, those who are disabled by mental illness have been excluded from application of this progressive model. There are many reasons proffered for such exclusion, such as safety, and the so-called "right to cure."' Nevertheless, a more critical look at the lives and experiences of individuals with mental illness reveals that their legal disadvantages have more to do stigma, fear, and discrimination than with altruistic goals, such as safety or a right to treatment. In a society in which sanism reins, the medical model remains the lens through which the law views the mentally ill. By taking the side of doctors who believe that the mentally ill require medical treatment, lawyers and judges accept without question the invisible oppression of sanist ideology. I argue that the current medical model of mental illness is deeply insufficient for mentally ill litigants. Under the guise of objective knowledge-that is, a psychiatric diagnosis-the medical model as it is applied in the law fails to recognize the dignity in the identities of the mentally ill and thereby perpetuates, if not worsens, their collective denigration as members of society.



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