We hope this article from Richard Light will help some people understand the social model and its development –

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

This article is reprinted with kind permission from Disability Awareness in Action.

God help us all!

December 19, 2010


Not a week goes by without a fresh onslaught against disabled people at the hands of a Government who appear hell bent upon making the Orwellian nightmare into a reality. Big Brothers Cameron and Clegg have unleashed their bloody thirsty pack of rabid mongels – some simply pleased to be given the opportunity to climb the greasy pole; others who are like the pathetic playground bully, want to hurt those who can’t fight back.


The huge talking point in recent weeks has been the release of the consultation document on replacing the Disability Living Allowance with the absurd Personal Independence Payment (PIP). I say ‘absurd’ because everything about it adds up to smashing disabled people’s ability to be independent. For legal reasons DPAC must be careful not to stray into personal attacks – therefore I will merely state that during my reading of this document, Captain Ska’s song “Liar, Liar” was pulsing through my head.


Before I look at the consultation document itself I’d like to invite you to read the petition at:




Adding insult to injury


In the Ministerial forward Maria Miller states:


“The Coalition Government is committed to helping disabled people to exercise choice and control over their lives.” I want to suggest we ought to keep this statement firmly in our minds as we consider all the implications behind their proposals. She goes goes on to say, “We have been absolutely clear that our welfare reform plans are designed to protect people in the most vulnerable situations, including disabled people.”

What is absolutely clear is that this is “doublespeak” – it means the Government will discharge any responsibility for the well-being of the majority of disabled people.


The document is full of questionable assertions which are impossible to challenge if you’re a lay person. Here is a flavour of what I mean:


“For example, many people incorrectly believe that Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is an income-replacement benefit for people who are unable to work due to disability.”


This comes from their own research … the words ‘they would say that wouldn’t they?’ spring to mind.


“The introduction of legislation, for example the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Equality Act 2010, to protect the interests of disabled people and prevent discrimination has helped many disabled people lead more independent lives.


What kind of evidence is there to support this claim?


“People are unclear about whether or not they are likely to qualify and there is evidence that people awarded DLA do not fully understand what the benefit is for. For example, some view the benefit as a form of compensation for being disabled, some don’t view themselves as disabled and others incorrectly believe that their DLA payments will stop if they return to work.”


The fact the current system is too complex, I would argue, is down to the administration of it not the basic framework of the benefit itself. Again, like poor workers blaming their tools, the DWP are shifting the blame for ‘not understanding the benefit’ onto claimants and away from the zealot gatekeepers at the DWP.




“Evidence suggests that DLA can also act as a barrier to work 6, when it should enable people to lead independent lives, including having or getting a job. DLA is widely perceived to be an out-of-work benefit and receiving it appears to reduce the likelihood of being in employment, even after allowing for the impact of health conditions or impairments. There is evidence that people who receive DLA have lower work expectations.”


As I said it is difficult to challenge the nature of this evidence because of how it was collected, but I suspect many disabled people and their organisations would suggest this doesn’t reflect their knowledge or experience.


The sleight of hand


In my opinion there’s evidence of sleight of hand to go with the ‘doublespeak’; the crucial one being the description of the principle behind the payment of DLA and future PIP.


First of all Miller states:


“We are steadfast in our support for the principles of DLA, as a non-means-tested cash benefit contributing to the extra costs incurred by disabled people.”


However in the very next paragraph she writes:


“Personal Independence Payment will maintain the key principles of DLA, providing cash support to help overcome the barriers which prevent disabled people from participating fully in everyday life, but it will be delivered in a fairer, more consistent and sustainable manner.”


Within the consultation document itself we find another articulation:


“We need a benefit that helps contribute to the extra costs of living independently, in a way that is right for each individual.”


(Emphasis added in each quotation – BWF)


Providing a cash contribution to offset extra costs arising from living with an impairment, helping to remove disabling barriers to participation in every day life, and contributing to the extra costs of living independently, don’t necessary add up to mean the same thing.


How dare these arrogant people at the DWP talk about confusion with the existing DLA when their own document is a dog’s dinner? The question is whether or not this “muddle” is deliberate or just the work of people who are “not fit for purpose”? Either way, the methodology is utterly flawed.


The document states: “The benefit will continue to take account of the social model” – excuse me? The existing benefit tilts it head at acknowledging ‘disabling barriers’ but in no way could the processes currently in place be regarded as working within a ‘social model’ perspective! Let’s not beat about the bush, it is possible to talk about ‘disabling barriers’ whilst enacting policies and practices which are firmly based upon ‘the individual model of disability’ – local authorities and charities do it all the time. Often both disabled and non disabled people are guilty of crude reductionism when talking about “disabling barriers” and the basic analysis that flows from the social model of disability. Within the original social model disability was understood to be social restrictions that were placed on top of the impact of having an impairment.


The model therefore focused upon the ways in which the structures, systems and social enviroments within western capitalist society excluded oer marginalised people with impairments in mainstream society. I would argue these social restrictions are primarily organised at the macro level of society, but they are experienced often as ‘disabling barriers’ at the micro level. This said, I would argue that not all social restrictions take the form of a barrier to participation – a defined social activity. The social model makes a clear distinction between the nature and degree of an impairment, and the imposed social restrictions. Attitudes towards impairments might result in disabling barriers, but they can also produce social restrictions in terms of negative evaluations of disabled people’s lifestyles which go beyond being prevented from taking part in an activity.


In my opinion the ‘disabling barriers’ approach found within the consultation document has nothing to do with the social model approach – it risks imposing an over-determinist approach through the construction of lists of ‘disabling barriers’ existing at the mirco level of social interaction that certain types of disabled people may or may not expected to encounter. Why do I say this?


“The new benefit will have two components, linked to a range of activities that will be considered in the new assessment. One will be awarded on the basis of the individual’s ability to get around (the mobility component), the other on their ability to carry out other key activities necessary to be able to participate in daily life (the daily living component).”


If this were to happen, it would adopt a similar methodology to that found in the oppressive ESA assessment process. Disabled people would become the Pavlov dog’s of the 21st Century – no wonder they’ve cooked up a dog’s dinner, eh?


Another obnoxious and hypocritical part of this document – again proof of the Government’s disingenous nature – is the bankrupt idea that support should go to those “who face the greatest need”. Why do they insult us with this nonsense? How do you square ‘greatest need’ with enabling disabled people to fully participate within society?


What defines “need” within the the context of the ‘principles of the social model of disability’, Ms Miller? Why can’t this gutless “normies” be honest and call it “rationalisation” because every disabled person knows what the phrase “who face the greatest need” means; snot off the end of their noses for some and sweet FA for everybody else!


Once again the DWP relies on its own reseach to justify its claims:



“As it is difficult to measure costs objectively on an individual basis, DLA currently looks at ‘care’ and ‘mobility’ as proxies for the extra costs disabled people are likely to incur, giving priority to the people with the greatest care and mobility needs. Although these are important issues and reflect some disabled people’s biggest challenges, they do not necessarily remain the best proxies for cost. In fact, there is currently conflicting evidence on the factors that affect the extra costs that disabled people face in the 21st Century.”


Source: Review of the existing research on the extra costs of disability, 2005, DWP Working Paper 21. Review of the international evidence on the cost of disability, 2008, DWP Research Report 542.


The Consultation Questions

There are 22 questions within the document however I will only comment on a selected number.


1.       What are the problems or barriers that prevent disabled people participating in society and leading independent, full and active lives?

3.       What are the main extra costs that disabled people face?


Are these questions for real? How can they seriously expect a

meaningful response from people concerned with welfare reform by

the 14th February, 2011. Colin Barnes wrote a whole book that merely

touched the surface! Let’s be clear: this is a political honey trap. It is

not possible to produce a complex matrix which takes into account,

for example, a myriad of impairments and illnesses, the range of

personal experiences that relate to these. All the systems,

structures, social environments, cultures and attitudes that are

involved in disabled people’s social interactions (recognising too all

the equality strands) vis-à-vis participation within society.


The DLA focused upon personal care and mobility because they are the mainstay of human activity. If the DWP are claiming these are considered outdated, why haven’t they made more public their “evidence”? Come on Miller, either put your money where your mouth is – produce the goods – or sling yer hook!


4.      The new benefit will have two rates for each component:


• Will having two rates per component make the benefit easier to understand and administer, while ensuring appropriate levels of support?

• What, if any, disadvantages or problems could having two rates per component cause?

Why is there a consultation process if the DWP have pre-determined

the framework of the new benefit?


6. How do we prioritise support to those people least able to live full and active lives? Which activities are most essential for everyday life?


Surely this is not the same remit as meeting ‘the extra costs of living independently? Miller appears to moving the goalposts again with this question. Remember the Independent Living Fund; trying to be clever isn’t smart – we can see right through your shallowness!


8. Should the assessment of a disabled person’s ability take into account any aids and adaptations they use?


Depends on whether or not the DWP want to demonstrate their complete ignorance of the role aids and adaptations play in the lives

of disabled people – how many different ways does this Government want to penalise us?


11. An important part of the new process is likely to be a face-to-face discussion with a healthcare professional.


• What benefits or difficulties might this bring?

• Are there any circumstances in which it may be inappropriate to require a face-to-face meeting with a healthcare professional – either in an individual’s own home or another location?


Many disabled people know more about their medical conditions than

healthcare professionals – so why attempt to “medicalise” everyone’s experiences? So much for the ‘principles of the social model’!


Question 12 asks how the reviews be carried out? For example:


• Should there be different types of review depending on the needs of the individual and their impairment/condition?


Doesn’t this sit oddly with Question 11?

I could go on and on raising issues with question after question, but the end result would be the same: it’s all a pile of ill considered poo!


I have tried to stay focused and avoid flying into a rage, but it has proved difficult. There’s not a polite way to describe this consultation document and I would dearly love to personally return it to Maria Miller but doing to her what she and her Government are attempting to do to disabled people is clearly not the answer.


As soon as the festive season is over we must do all we can to turn the heat up on the Government and disablist lackeys at the DWP.


Bob Williams-Findlay