OBJECTIVE. The social model of disability has had a major influence on the academic field of disability studies and on contemporary understandings of the causes and experience of disability. The purpose of this study was to examine the adequacy of the social model for explaining the disability experience of persons with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
METHODS. This qualitative study examined the experiences of 47 adults with CFS participating in a research project that aimed to evaluate a participant-designed rehabilitation program. Data were aggregated from focus group interviews, open-ended questionnaires, progress notes, and from a program evaluation questionnaire. Data analysis was based on a grounded theory approach and used triangulation of multiple data sources and member checks to assure dependability of findings.
RESULTS. Four themes emerged from the analysis: (1) minimization and mistrust of the disability; (2) negative experiences of impairment; (3) lack of identification with the disability community; and (4) the focus on advocacy as a quest for legitimacy. These themes varied in the extent to which they conformed to the principles set forth by the social model.
CONCLUSIONS. Although the social model has important contributions to lend to occupational therapy practice, it is important to recognize that it may not capture the full reality of disability. In particular, the social model has serious limitations in describing the disability experience of individuals with disabilities who do not have visibly obvious disabilities and whose impairments do not conform to the traditional viewpoint of disability.