I wrote this just now for a person on Facebook who asked for a shorter and simpler introduction to the social model of disability than Google offered. Since I imagine it will be useful to more than just the person to whom I originally responded, I’m reposting it here.
Think of “disabled” or “disability” as a verb. A body/brain condition you have is a “disability” not because it exists or because it differs from body/brain conditions a lot of other people have, but because the world you live in is not set up, socially or otherwise, to let people with your body/brain condition access it easily.
The condition “itself” – say, like having chronic migraines or not having legs – is typically called an “impairment,” especially if the medical world has criteria for diagnosing it. Impairments can come with their own non-social hardships. Migraines, for example, can be very painful, cause difficulty thinking, nausea etc. But any body/mind condition, “impairment” or otherwise, is a “disability” only when the way society is structured is the reason you can’t do the things you want to do when you have it.
A rather simplified example: I have chronic migraines. I see the pain as an “impairment,” because no amount of social change will ever make the pain not suck for me. But whether or not I can hold a full-time job with my chronic migraines is a “disability,” because it depends on things like how work is structured in a particular society, what tools I have to do work in alternate ways during a migraine, etc.
My chronic migraines were a full-blown “disability” when I worked as a line editor, because there my employer refused to structure the job so I could do it during a migraine. In other words, I was “disabled” from doing that job by my employer’s rules about how the job “should” be done. But the migraines were less disabling when I was a lawyer or now, as a professor, because both those jobs are ones I can structure (and have structured) so I can do the work even during a migraine. I can schedule work so that I’m working at home on migraine days; I can lower the lights in my office/classroom and give my students activities that don’t require the same kind of “on my toes” input from me; I can postpone grading for days when I don’t have a migraine; and I have someone else to double-check my writing to make sure it makes sense. In writing fiction, I find that my migraines are actually the opposite of “disabling”: I write *better* fiction when I have one than when I don’t. The migraines are still painful and nauseating, but now I’m “abled” to do my job because it is structured in a way that lets me access it even with the pain and nausea.
…This doesn’t, of course, address any of my reservations about the disability/impairment binary, regarding autism or otherwise. But I hope it’s useful.