This article identifies an expression of a social model of disability in a 1966 film promoting Hofstra University’s Program for the Higher Education of the Handicapped and traces that model back to books published by the pioneering rehabilitation physician Henry H. Kessler in 1935 and 1947, decades before the UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired against Segregation) Fundamental Principles of Disability (1976). In light of Kessler’s articulation of social and minority models, identification of contrasting religious, charity and medical models, and discussion of disability stigma, this article reassesses Ruth O’Brien’s critique, in Crippled Justice (2001), of Kessler and the twentieth-century rehabilitation movement.

Contrary to O’Brien’s critique, Kessler does not simply expect people with disabilities to adapt themselves to the existing society; instead, he insists that the “general public” change its handicapping attitudes and accept the person living with impairments as a “natural unit of the common society.” Rather than, as O’Brien charges, embracing the norm, Kessler questions the concept “normal” and anticipates Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s concept “normate.” Further, rather than stressing the psychological maladjustment of people with disabilities, Kessler attributes ableist prejudice to its own form of personality maladjustment. O’Brien’s critique better fits the career and writing of Howard A. Rusk whom she pairs with Kessler as founders and leaders of the rehabilitation movement.

This article also proposes factors that prevented Kessler’s social-contextual model from spawning the social movement that UPIAS’s Fundamental Principles later would. Those factors include what David Pettinicchio identifies as an entrenched disability policy monopoly (Politics of Empowerment 2019), the absence of a cross-disability collective identity, and the absence of a civil rights frame for addressing discrimination against underprivileged minorities. The seeds of the later disability rights movement, though, appear in early articulations of social and minority models within the rehabilitation movement.