Human Rights

Social Model or Unsociable Muddle?

It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the key issues in disability activism-the Social Model of Disability-is subject to repeated attacks, particularly within the academic community. What is equally clear is that much of the ‘bad press' has been prompted by interpretations of the social model that many of us would find particularly strange.

As you might expect, academic discussion is often marked by both completely incomprehensible language and a startling lack of humility-each writer seems to assume that their contribution offers an invaluable new insight and that anyone who does not accept it must be hopelessly stupid or badly informed.

This article seeks to describe, in straightforward terms, what the social model means to a great many disabled activists, including those of us at DAA. We believe that it is time for disabled activists to remind academics that the social model originated with us, and that we still have use for it!

Despite our concerns about harmful criticism of the social model, we wholeheartedly endorse attempts to offer a more comprehensive or inclusive social theory of disability. This article is not intended to condemn efforts to theorise disability and what it means, but it is a heartfelt plea for theorists to understand the damage that is done by sweeping claims as to the social model's shortcomings, without proposing alternatives that are acceptable to the disability community.

We are in no doubt that repeated attacks on the social model, particularly where no acceptable alternative is proposed, causes harm. We hope that this article makes it clear why so much is at stake.

The origins of the Social Model

The origins of what would later be called the ‘social model' can be traced to an essay by a disabled Briton: A Critical Condition, written by Paul Hunt and published in 1966.

In this paper, Hunt argued that because people with impairments are viewed as ‘unfortunate, useless, different, oppressed and sick' they pose a direct challenge to commonly held Western values According to Hunt, people with impairments were viewed as:

  • unfortunate' because they are unable to ‘enjoy' material and social benefits of modern society‘
  • useless' because they are considered unable to contribute to ‘economic good of the community', and
  • marked as ‘minority group' members because, like black people and homosexuals, they are perceived as ‘abnormal' and ‘different'

This analysis led Hunt to the view that disabled people encounter ‘prejudice which expresses itself in discrimination and oppression.'

The relationship between economics and cultural attitudes toward disabled people is a vital part of Hunt's understanding of the experience of impairment and disability in western society.


The UPIAS Definition

Ten-years later, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) developed Paul Hunt's work further, leading to the UPIAS assertion, in 1976, that disability was:

‘the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.'

It must be acknowledged that the UPIAS definition of ‘disability' only refers to: ‘people who have physical impairments...' and the failure to include any other types of impairment has led some people to claim that the social model only applies to wheelchair users

We would make two responses to response to such criticism: firstly, that the group ‘people who have physical impairments' includes many people who are not wheelchair users. Secondly, and far more importantly, the statement was made by an organisation whose membership was made up of people with physical impairments-how could UPIAS speak for any other group of disabled people?

The vital feature of the UPIAS statement and, indeed, Paul Hunt's 1966 essay, is that for the first time disability was described in terms of restrictions imposed on disabled people by social organisation

The Social Model is born

It was not until 1983 that the disabled academic, Mike Oliver, described the ideas that lay behind the UPIAS definition as the ‘social model of disability'

The 'social model', was extended and developed by academics like Vic Finkelstein, Mike Oliver and Colin Barnes in the UK and Gerben DeJong in the USA (amongst others), and extended by Disabled Peoples' International to include all disabled people So, whilst the original formulation of the social model may have been developed by people with physical impairments, the insight that it offered was quickly seen as having value to all disabled people. To suggest that the social model amounts to a conspiracy by one group of disabled people, against the remainder is, therefore, either incorrect or mischievous.


The social model - an evolving idea

It is an inevitable aspect of human development that new ways of interpreting the world around us are introduced by an individual or, more often, a small group of people. It is simply the support and agreement of a wider group that transforms these interpretations into a social movement-precisely what happened with the African-American civil rights movement and feminism. As more and more people are introduced to these new interpretations, so the original ideas are questioned, argued over, developed and refined-precisely what happened to the social model of disability.

For those of us at DAA, the evolving nature of the social model, made possible by the interest it has generated throughout the disabled community, is a positive and necessary thing. Knowledge is always partial-the best that we can achieve at a particular time and place-but subsequent debate has ensured that the social model remains relevant to our lives- primarily because it still has the power to dramatically change the way disabled people think about themselves and their place in the world. What can be more liberating than the discovery that being disabled does not have to be viewed negatively-as some failure or weakness in us-and that there are people all over the world that feel a sense of community because of disability?

The social model and different impairments

DAA's work is driven by an inclusive view of the disabled community - defined quite simply as those people who choose to identify as ‘disabled'. We are aware that not all groups of disabled people adopt such an inclusive approach, sometimes using both formal rules and informal sanctions to discourage people who are not seen as belonging to ‘their' group, but such difficulties are caused by the individuals involved, not the social model!

The construction of the social model which DAA adopts defines 'disability' quite simply as: ‘the social consequences of having an impairment.' It is unquestionably the case that using ‘disability' to describe such a huge and very different group of people is difficult, not the least because the label is artificial and because too much is usually taken for granted when the wider community talk about 'the disabled'.

It is also the case that all members of the disabled community have not had the same opportunity to have their opinions heard. Self-advocacy ultimately depends on individuals being prepared to advocate for themselves.

Demanding the right to advocate for ourselves is a dynamic process, it is not something that others can give to, or provide for us (although the space and opportunity to be heard may). No matter how much disability advocates might want to be joined by under-represented groups within the disability community, this requires those groups to want to be part of the wider community.

Blaming the social model for the undoubted shortcomings of the disability movement is, quite simply, unreasonable!

Whilst the academic community may view it differently, for the disability movement the social model provides a way of thinking about disability that accords with our experience of being disabled people-that disability is caused by the attitudinal, physical and communication barriers imposed on us, rather than the effects of our impairments

Despite the artificial nature of the label ‘disabled', this shared experience of external barriers allows disabled people, irrespective of their different impairments, to feel a sense of shared identity. Having a shared identity as ‘disabled people' need not and, in our opinion, should not, interfere with our identities as people with specific impairments, nor should they cause some impairment-specific needs to be promoted at the expense of others. The disability movement can only remain strong and effective when we each respect the enormous diversity within the movement

After years of campaigning and persuasion, the social model has offered a valuable and effective tool for helping people, disabled and non-disabled alike, to view disability in a way that does not put the ‘blame' for disability on the disabled person.

Disability equality trainers, activists and academics have used the insight provided by the social model to make a real difference in all areas of social, political and economic life.

It is also true that the changes won by disabled campaigners are unpopular with those who see their authority, power and, in some cases, wealth, being eroded by social model ideals.

Theorising disability is important, but it's time that some of those who do theorise adopt a little more humility and understanding before making public attacks on the social model.

Richard Light                                                

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