This article considers the contribution of the social model of disability and rights discourse to the advancement of education to persons classified as having severe or profound intellectual impairments. It is argued that while the rhetorical significance of both the social model and rights discourse are not to be discounted, the applicable disability and education policies refer to both the former and latter in abstract terms. The history of the social model means that it was formulated in opposition to the hegemonic individual, medical model. As a result, its value to policy formulation should not be overestimated, especially if it is articulated in ways that emphasise formal equality rather than substantive equality. Similarly, rights may either be used to mask inequalities or to challenge domination. If used for the latter purpose, rights have to be framed from the perspective of struggle. The applicable policies do not use rights in that manner and the rights discourse hides the fact that difference is still perceived through the lens of an unstated “ideal”. The insufficient engagement with whether detailed processes are consistent with the central tenets of the social model or progressive articulations of rights is arguably responsible for the government’s responses in the matter of Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability v Government of the Republic of SA. The case reflects the difficulties of overcoming deep-seated negative assumptions about persons with intellectual impairments and the need for the normative choices that underpin both the social model and rights to be articulated, reflected and examined critically in the implementation of policies and concomitant practices.