I’ve called this paper The Social Model of Disability Repossessed for reasons that will be obvious at the end!
1 Assertions I’ll start my presentation with two negative assertions. (i) the social interpretation of disability does not provide an ‘explanation’ of disability, and(ii) disabled people are not the subject matter of the social interpretation of disability. These assertions are fundamental to my beliefs, and these two assumptions are where I begin my understanding of ‘disability’:
2 Interpretations, models and theories I have used the term ‘interpretation’ rather than ‘model’ or ‘theory’ because this is where we, in the Union of the Physically Impaired AgainstSegregation (UPIAS), started trying to make sense of the meaning of disability.
At the earliest stage in forming UPIAS, and in my long discussions with Paul Hunt prior to his call for a new type of organisation of disabled people, we explored different interpretations of disability and we saw this as the beginning of a new theory: ‘... the Union from its inception spent much timereconsidering the prevailing interpretations of the nature of disability. The result of this groundwork was that ... [we] were able to state unequivocally that, “our own position on disability is quite clear . . . In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from fullparticipation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society”.’ (My emphasis. UPIAS Fundamental Principles of Disability 1975) Because this was early days in grappling with a new interpretation of disability we also, in the same Fundamental Principles document, rather loosely referred to our interpretation as providing us with a social theory of disability which could guide ourstruggle against oppression: ‘the ... struggle proposed by the Union is logically developed from a social theory of disability.’ (UPIAS Fundamental Principles of Disability 1975) What was consistent in our view, however, was that our interpretation of ‘disability’ led us to focus on the nature and workings of society, not (I emphasise) our personal or individual attributes (which we saw as relatedto impairments). We had started to redefine the meaning of disability. ‘... it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments ...’ (UPIAS Fundamental Principles of Disability 1975) So, let’s be clear – there are important differences between ‘interpretations’, ‘models’ and ‘theories’ and their precise focus of attention. 1 (i)Interpretations
At an early stage in re-thinking the meaning of disability, when members of UPIAS began debating our socially inferior situation and asking why we found ourselves in this situation, we confronted a crude, but fundamental choice: • either our tragedy is that the impairments we possess make us incapable of social functioning, or • our society is constructed by people with capabilitiesfor people with capabilities and it is this that makes people with impairments incapable of functioning. The agreed UPIAS interpretation was that, although it may be a tragedy to have an impairment, it is oppression that characterises the way our society is organised so that we are prevented from functioning. In other words, at the personal level we may talk about acquiring an impairment being apersonal tragedy, but at the social level we should talk about the restrictions that we face are, and should be interpreted as, a crime. It is society that disables us and disabled people are an oppressed social group. The central issue in our campaigns for a better life, therefore, ought to be concerned with issues around emancipation and this requires struggles for social change rather than...