Disability and Society
- Late 60s and early 70s saw people with physical impairments in residential institutions begin to question their exclusion from mainstream society. Negative interaction with social scientists and the appearance of the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Impairment, Disability and Handicap, led to them developing a critique of dominant thinking.
- Dominant thinking: significant impairment was an individual tragedy; the loss or reduction of functionality was ‘disabling’ because it prevented the person fulfilling their accepted and expected social roles. Social restrictions encountered [handicaps] were caused by impairment/disability.
- Alternative thinking: The social restrictions encountered [disability] were not caused by the impairment itself, but rather the social organisation of society which failed to take people with physical impairments into account. Not an ‘individual medicalised problem’ but a ‘social problem’.
- Residential institutions were seen as a solution to ‘the social death’ of the person unable to fulfil their accepted and expected social roles. Disabled people rejected seeing ‘their bodies’ as having no social worth and argued the adaption of society would enable them to participate. [There are Left (anti-capitalist) and Right (reformist) positions around these ideas.
- Paul Hunt, a prime mover in this alternative thinking, in 1972 called for a new consumer group to be formed to develop the ‘social interpretation of disability’ and campaign for deinstitutionalisation and integration into society. The Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation was set up a few years later.
- By the time of the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, there had been a massive increase in self-organised groups – disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) across the globe and in UK. Conflicts around defining disability led to disabled people setting up two important umbrella DPOs – Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) and the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP). BCODP begun with 15 members in 1981 and by 1992 had 122.
- It is argued that the formation of BCODP led to a new social movement – The Disability Movement or Disabled People’s Movement. As with new social movements, they have broad aims and bases, therefore over time differing perspectives, priorities, etc. emerged. A scholar activist, Mike Oliver, reformulated UPIAS’ social interpretation of disability into two explorative models to be used by students, professionals, and disabled people – individual tragedy model and the social model. The aim was to explore what was viewed as cause/remedy of disability in both. The latter was to focus on the social restrictions / disabling barriers that caused oppression and discrimination with the intent of reducing or removing them.
- The Disabled People’s Movement emerged as Neoliberal did. Over the decade the shifts within capitalism also impacted upon the thinking and practice of the Movement. Differences and tensions lay beneath the surface due to the broad aims and base of the Movement – influences from American Disability Rights Movement and interpretations of social model and independent living – resulted in the watering down of disability politics into more ‘accommodationist’ positions and away from the emancipatory ones.
- By the 1990s, BCODP and the Disabled People’s Movement had put all its eggs into two baskets – Independent Living through Direct Payment [self-directed support] and obtaining civil and human rights through legislation. The fight for rights took two paths – radical social approach which saw rights as a means to an end; a reformist one which saw them as a solution. The Tories opted to agree to the latter and passed the Disability Discrimination Act which granted minimum rights to a few in a piecemeal fashion. Within the DPM the Right saw this initially as a victory; the Left as a huge political defeat.
- New Labour capitalised upon this disarray by developing the ‘accommodationist’ positions through transforming the DPM’s concepts into ones which could encourage self-reliance and a commodified ‘market-place’ around “personalisation”, “personal budgets”, DPOs as service providers; with a “rights with responsibilities” agenda. The DPM was slowly replaced by a movement of disability charities and DPOs doing the government’s bidding.
- A radical disability politic in the 1990s came through the Direct Action Network (DAN) which used civil disobedience to highlight structural inequalities: transport, housing, institutionalisation, misrepresentation, etc. Achieved high profile and provided a blueprint for other activist campaigns to follow – handcuffs, roadblocks, etc.
- The waning DPM had no answers to the developing Age of Austerity. In 2010, the formation of Disabled People Against Cuts sought to build resistance to Austerity by using a mixture of tactics. Chequered history with limited success in doing this, but failing to address the de-politicalisation of disabled people; lack of resources, and not seeking a collective transparent way to self-organise as a platform capable of forging alliances within mainstream political campaigning. Not helped by the ignorance and patronising attitudes of the Left, trade unionists, ecological campaigners, etc. who fail time after time to take disabled people’s access needs and agendas onboard.
- Pockets of residence do exist; XR disabled rebels have sought to blend Disability and Climate Justice within XR. Act 4 Inclusion, a campaign organisation which is a coalition of different sections of society seeking to address the failed Social Care system by advocating a new transformative agenda. A4I believes in addressing the interdependency of natural and social environments through tackling the barriers in all environments which prevent sustainable and inclusive living. An eco-social approach would provide community based coproduced services which respected older and disabled people’s chosen lifestyles.
- The world is facing multiple types of crises, most of these are interconnected and relate to the decay and failure of the capitalist system to address climate change and widespread inequalities.
- The nature of disabled people’s oppression – social exclusion, marginalisation, devalued existence – means they are at the sharp end of each and every crisis. The Covid pandemic brought into sharp focus the eugenic nature of disablism and ageism – the cost of living crisis compounds this situation. Being viewed as burdens on society, the “most vulnerable” (sic) not only fits into the eugenic narrative, it resides in the logic of capitalist exploitative value system and Social Darwinism. The notion of “survival of the fittest” is rapidly coming to the fore in both green capitalism and fascism.
- In the narratives around the cost of living crisis, we see disabled and older people as ‘invisible victims’ – no account is made of how its impacts upon our needs and lifestyles. Demands and solutions offered exclude many oppressed groups within society. We seek inclusivity, social justice, and emancipation, so that no one is left behind.