Dec 202011

Disability Political Mobilisation

by eldoct

 Blog piece below orginally posted at multoo
The history of the disability rights movement in the UK stretches back to the 1970s. Tom Shakespeare pinpoints the ‘Year Zero’ as 1975 (Shakespeare, 2006:14), with the writing of the Fundamental Principles of Disability by UPIAS – the Unionof the Physically Impaired Against Segregation.
The key members of UPIAS – Vic Finklestein, Paul Hunt and Paul Abberley – wrote the Fundamental Principles against a background where the societal response to impairment was to provide specialist segregated settings for disabled people – residential homes, special schools, segregated workplace settings, etc.
In 1983 Mike Oliver named the dominant societal disability discourse as the Individual, or Medical, Model of disability. In contrast he named the new definition the Social Model of Disability. I will explore some aspects of these definitions in a future blog.
For the purposes of this blog I wish to highlight three factors about this political activity –
  • The self-mobilisation of disabled people, into political groupings, started at this point. The 1980s saw the formation of groups of disabled people, from national organisations to the regional and local groups. Disabled people began campaigning for equal rights, for better access, and for a range of different things. Some of these groups were very angry, railing against the oppressive practices of non-disabled people, while others were more conciliatory, working with local authorities to deliver ‘better’ public services. The point here is that disabled people began to decide what it is that they wanted to campaign for, or against, and then to do it, without the involvement of non-disabled people;
  • The first fruits of this self-mobilisation was the creation of a new, political understanding of disability – the Social Model. This was the first time that disabled people themselves created a definition of disability. This self-definition and self-naming is an important political process, mirrored within other civil rights movements. It moves disability away from the bounds of medical discourse into the realm of political activity; and
  • In doing this, for the first time the notions of ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’ were separated. People with impairments can be disabled, or not, by the socially constructed world around them.
These three things, at least, demonstrate that we, as disabled people, can change things. TheUK disability landscape is fundamentally different now from what it was in the 1970s. Without the anger, frustration, and vocalisation of disabled people themselves it is hard to imagine things would have changed in the way that they have. Many of us now live independently in the community of our choosing, with the people we want, controlling our own support packages. Not all of us are institutionalised and segregated away from the mainstream in the same way as we were in times gone by.
But there is still a long way to go. For some people this independence is still not a choice. Some people experience profound degradation, humiliation and even torture in the place they call ‘home’ – look at Winterbourne View and other recent ‘care home’ scandals.
It looks like things will get a lot worse in times to come. As budgets are reduced, the squeeze on Local Authority social care provision will increase. More people may well find themselves in institutions when they would like to remain living independently. The Hardest Hit in these tough times are disabled people.
The battle is not over, nor is it ‘won’. Not by any means. The question is how do we win it? I believe we need a mobilisation of grass roots disability political activity. We have shown what we can do when we are in control, and we have shown that by working with government – locally, regionally and nationally – we can make significant change.
There can be a friction between Local Authority service delivery, contracting and tendering and this political campaigning. But there is space for this activity. The key here is to mobilise on a regional and national scale. To bring together the voices demanding change.
Festive Cheer One and All.
Shakespeare, T. (2006) Disability rights and wrongs Routledge,London,UK

For another perspective on the social model here’s a video from Disability LIB



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  2 Responses to “So what's so great about the social model of disability anyway?”

  1. The sentiment expressed in Theo’s blog I would wholeheartedly agree with, however, there are a few points I would take issue with.

    The document produced by UPIAS in 1975 was without doubt a major break with traditional views on disability, nevertheless, I question Shakespeare’s characterisation of it as ‘Year Zero’ because in my eyes this undermines the political process that went into the writing of the Fundamental Principles of Disability. Unlike the majority of disabled activists, I was around during these early days and the brothers and sisters of UPIAS drew upon the experiences of many of us before making a commitment to paper of the conclusions they drew from hours of debate.

    In no way do I want to belittle the contribution made by disabled academics to our struggle, but those who have made the largest contribution are those who operate within ‘participatory research’ – drawing upon the lives of disabled people who are in struggle – rather than the type who pronounce from the distance of their ivory towers. I make this point because to me the ownership ‘of knowledge’ is a crucial issue: in recent years I believe the distance between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ has greatly damaged the Disabled People’s Movement.

    If disabled activists are going to take the fight to this Government in 2012 then I would suggest they have a dual responsibility. Not only must they continue to campaign and bring more disabled people into our struggle, they must also ensure that these same people understand the historical legacy that has gone before them. In truth the social model is simply a means of exploring the way people with impairments have been socially restricted by the nature of society; its value comes from the lessons that can be drawn from this type of exploration. Disability is socially constructed, but more importantly, it is socially created by the structures, systems and organisation of society and our oppression will not end untill social relationships within society are changed forever. I urge activists to re-visit the work of UPIAS because nearly all the questions they raised are still awaiting answers.

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