Sunday, 12 August 2012

Disability politics 101- The social model of disability

Extract from  Garland-Thomson, R, 2006, Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory in Davis, L, (ed) 2006, The Disabilities Studies Reader (2end ed.)  
The disability movement began in the UK in the 1970s. We reclaimed the term ‘disability’ from professionals in medicine and social care who viewed it as a personal affliction, entirely reconstructing its meaning in the light of the social exclusions encountered in our own lived experience (UPIAS, 1976). In a radical move, we severed the presupposed causal link whereby impairment resulted in disability, asserting instead that disability was an entirely socially caused phenomenon. Disability was reformulated to mean the social disadvantages and exclusions that people with impairment faced in all areas of life: employment, housing, education, civil rights, transportation, negotiation of the built environment, sexuality and so forth. Traditional medical and welfarist models of disability, together with their culturally pervasive ‘personal tragedy’ counterpart, were thrown aside in favour of a social definition of disability. Mike Oliver coined the phrase ‘the social model of disability’ to capture this new paradigm, and it became a touchstone in Disability Studies and the disabled people’s movement in the UK. The social model of disability unleashed a powerful drive for social and political change. Disability was exposed as a form of social oppression and exclusion that should not be tolerated, analogous to already recognised oppressions associated with gender, race, class and sexuality. Once this understanding of disability is adopted, the manifestations of ablism can be readily observed: a wheelchair user or a person with visual impairment cannot access public transport systems, or is not able to obtain a quality education that would enable them to compete for well-paid jobs in the labour market, or is represented as a person of lesser value in films and other media. The disabling ‘social barriers’ in the lives of people with impairments can be identified and challenged because socially created barriers can be dismantled. As people with disabilities the social model has enabled a vision of ourselves free from constraints of disability (oppression) and provided a direction for our commitment to social change. It has played a central role in promoting disabled people’s individual self worth, collective identity and political organisation. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the social model has saved lives (Crow, 1996: 207). 

Now for some of my thoughts...

The built environment is a concrete way the social construction of disability is created and our social exclusion maintained within society. The historical failure to take disability into account when designing buildings has resulted in our ‘structural exclusion’ from many public areas of life (Thomas, 1999, p.18). The inadequate or complete lack of wheelchair access to many buildings as well as an ‘inaccessible public transport’ system exerts a profound impact on our ‘ability to assess spaces and participate fully and equally within society’ (Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999, p.121). Thomas (1999, p.18) adopts the stance that the inadequate access arises from widely held negative perceptions and stereotypes of disability that are ‘systemic and entrenched’ within society. Arising out of this context of exclusion are common cultural stereotypes of disability, such as it being perceived as a ‘personal tragedy where the person is assumed to be helpless and in need of pity’ (Goggin & Newell, 2005, p.19). However, the lived experience of disability is contextual to this society; Thomas (1999, p.113) asserts there is not an essential state of disability or impairment within the individual from which disadvantage arise, she argues it is a complex interplay of ‘socially constructed power relations’ and bodily experiences that form our relationship to the world.

We, as people with disabilities, seek to challenge ableism-prejudicial attitudes that equate devalued bodily conditions with decreased social value- and to reframe terms so that impairment refers to: the actual functional limitation within a person; and disability: the loss or limitation to take part in life on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. In this way we have a political framework from which to perceive our bodies/minds and the world from a new and empowered perspective. It gives us the words to describe our experiences of inequality and opens our hearts and minds by offering an alternative conceptualization of “the problem’’ through locating it externally within the environment; creating a collective identity which allows for a sense of purpose, political strength and solidarity to develop between us. 

Social model 


The unrelenting system of exclusion and otherness of disability in Australia is internalised by each of us, and indeed constructs us as subjects. In our private moments and in our cherished notions of ourselves, we are shaped and marked by the power relations of disability (Goggin & Newell, 2005, p.200). On a personal political note disability politics enables a political analysis of the dominant discourses to be undertaken leading to forms of resistance and unruly activism to be enjoyed--such as pashing women in woollies--resisting simultaneously the a-sexualisation people with disabilities are subject to as well as homophobia :)

No comments:

Post a Comment