The social model: a victim of criticism

The social model of disability has been criticised for failing to take account of individual impairments. Those critics are partly to blame for eroding its strength and reducing disabled people to the status of tragic victims says Mike Oliver, who developed the concept.

I appeared on The Download recently to talk about the background to the development of the social model of disability by way of an introduction to a discussion about whether it had outlived its usefulness.

The idea behind the social model stemmed from the Fundamental Principles of the Disability document which was first published in the mid-1970s and which argued that we were not disabled by our impairments but by the disabling barriers we faced in society. The social model took on a life of its own and it became the big idea behind the newly emerging disability equality training. It also soon became the vehicle for developing a collective disability consciousness and helped to develop and strengthen the disabled peoples’ movement which had begun to emerge a decade earlier.

Armed with the idea that we needed to identify and eradicate the disabling barriers we faced, the disabled people’s movement forced the media to change their images of us and transport providers to open up many of their services to us; public buildings became much more accessible and the legal system changed to make it illegal to discriminate against us.

Of course there were some barriers which proved, and continue to prove, much more intractable. The hegemony of special education has barely been challenged in schools (even though some disabling barriers have been removed in further and higher education). The social model has barely made a dent in the employment system because although it has identified many of the disabling barriers in the international labour market and with employers’ behaviour, the solutions offered have usually been individual model-based.

Critics of the social model began to emerge soon after I coined the term. Initially, they came from the major disability charities and many professional organisations who felt that their dominance of our lives was under threat. But it was soon attacked by some disabled people and academics working in disability studies. They argued that there was no place for impairment within the social model and that it failed to take account of differences between us.

Over the years, these attacks have depoliticised the social model and effectively neutralised its power. This didn’t matter too much while the global economy was operating in boom mode but things changed very quickly when it went bust in 2008.

Just as some of us had predicted, emphasising impairment and difference was a strategy that was impotent in protecting disabled people and our benefits and services from the economic firestorm that was raging around us. Cuts in our benefits are now being justified on the grounds that the intention is to give more to those who are severely impaired and less to those who are not . Our differences are being used to slash our services as our needs are now being assessed as being moderate, substantial or critical and many local authorities are now only providing services to those whose needs are critical.

As a consequence, most of the political campaigning that has taken place in defence of our benefits and services has forced disabled people back into the role of tragic victims of our impairments and has involved others undertaking special pleading on our behalf. In fact, it has taken us back more than 30 years to the time before the social model came into existence.

Those who have talked down the social model while failing to replace it with something more meaningful or useful must bear a heavy burden of responsibility for this state of affairs. Disabled people urgently need a reinvigorated social model – or something new to replace it.

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