What is disability? And why is it a political question?

dpacBob Williams-Findlay explores the political question of ‘disability’

 What is disability? If you were to ask a mixed group of disabled and non-disabled people this question the chances are that the number of answers given could almost add up to the same number as those present in the room! The problem is that there are many different and often opposing ways of defining ‘the disability problem’. In general terms these definitions tend to fall into two broad camps; the traditional approaches with a focus on the degree to which a person’s condition or impairment prevents them from fulfilling the roles and expectations usually carried out by so called ‘normal people’ (sic) and social approaches which identify disability as being ‘imposed on top of our impairments by the social organisation of society’.

The main emphasis within this article will be an explanation of how and why the Disabled People’s Movement shifted the ‘disability problem’ away from viewing it as a negative attribute of an individual, towards addressing it as a form of social oppression.

Why definitions of disability are historically specific

There have always been people who, because of injury, disease or genetic makeup, have bodies that are not fully functional. Research shows that the treatment of people with impairments has varied greatly down the ages however it was not until the development of the capitalism mode of production was there a systematic approach to classify individuals into distinctive groups.

Gleeson explains:

“…. an important critique has been developed of the root cause of disablement – the capitalist system. Disability in its current form is said to have emerged at the time of the industrial revolution, with the growth of the commodity labour market a key factor in the process of disablement … (thus) the fundamental relationships of capitalist society are implicated in the social oppression of disabled people.”

By the middle of the nineteenth century British society had felt the impact of the Industrial Revolution. The harsh realities it produced created economic and social upheavals which brought about, in turn, moral panics around the fear of illness, disease and depravity. Social reformers sought to replace chaos with control – contours around what was considered ‘normal’ were drawn and those groups thought to be polluting society – outside ‘normality’ – were withdrawn from the public gaze.

The increased usage of institutionalisation, the birth of the eugenics movement and the proliferation of charities contributed towards ‘cleansing’ society of its mad and hapless cripples. Non-conformity was unacceptable and those people deemed incapable of keeping standards associated with ‘normal activities’ – productive and reproductive – had to be ‘taken care of’ in more senses than one.

These processes firmly established people with significant impairments as ‘outside’ mainstream society; however it took the First World War to shape the dominant approaches that viewed disability as ‘an individualised personal tragedy’. Medical practice since this time has focused firmly on how the body ‘functions’ vis-à-vis social tasks and doctors along with other professionals were concerned with the impact of impairments on people’s capabilities. In crude terms, the less someone functioned ‘like a normal person’ (sic), the more ‘disabled’ they were judged to be. Key ideologies such as individualism and normality contributed to the process of identifying ‘disability’ as the negative outcome of a loss of function caused by an individual’s impairment. This view of the ‘problem of disability’ remained largely unchallenged for the next fifty years.

Disability: a personal tragedy or social oppression?

When a challenge did come it came from the ranks of disabled people. Our starting point is to recognise that the Disabled People’s Movement emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s when groups of disabled people began to question why they were either excluded from or marginalised within mainstream social activities.

The roots of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) stem from 1972 when Paul Hunt wrote a letter to the Guardian inviting disabled people to join with him to form a group to tackle disability. Paul formed his ideas whilst living in an institution called Le Court. He and other residents had been involved in a long and bitter struggle with the authorities over the right of disabled people to have control over their lives within the institution and for some representation on the management committee. The significance of this particular struggle was that during the course of their struggle, he and others had already started asking some very fundamental questions about the nature of the helper/ helped relationship, the powerless that they were having imposed on top of their impairments, and about why this was the case.

Paul’s partner, Judy Hunt, wrote:

“UPIAS exposed disability as an oppressive relationship, and a power relationship of control. It was these ideas – taken on by the disabled people’s movement – that became the important liberating factor in the movement.”

The ideas of UPIAS were made accessible to disabled people and their organisations via one of its members, a disabled academic called Mike Oliver who developed two models of disability – the individual tragedy model and the social model. It is important to recognise that a model is a ‘schematic description of a system, theory, or phenomenon that accounts for its known or inferred properties and may be used for further study of its characteristics.’

So Oliver used the ‘individual tragedy model’ to explore the dominant ideologies and practice in relation to disability in the UK.

How ‘disability’ is defined and then employed in law, social policy and day-to-day social and cultural activities has been rejected by the disabled people’s movement because it presents disabled people in ways which are often considered negative and, as a result, increases the possibility that a disabled person could experience either discrimination or be forced to accept segregated services. The emphasis is on disabled people’s lack of ability, caused by their condition, which is then measured as a means of explaining (and legitimating) why they are unable to ‘fit into’ the mainstream of social activities.

Disabled people argue this approach misrepresents the facts. The alternative ‘social model’ approach has as its starting point the recognition that often having a condition or impairment does have an impact upon our lives; however this is not the direct cause of people with impairments’ social exclusion. If an individual evaluates their impairment in negative terms, which they may, this is not the same as being judged as ‘tragic’ in societal terms because of the perceived non-conformity of the body or mind and the subsequent absence of social value. It is precisely how people with impairments are ‘made sense of’ which ultimately leads to them not being ‘taken into account’ by given western societies. Thus it is within the social organisation of society; mode of production, societal structures, systems, culture and values, etc. where the social restrictions are created for disabled people.

The social oppression understanding of disability

Oliver explains:

“The more detailed elaboration of the social model stemmed from attempts to apply this insight into practice: firstly, in training of social workers, and secondly, in the design and delivery of disability equality training. … I was trying to provide my students with a way of applying the idea that it was society and not people with impairments that should be the target for professional intervention and practice.” Oliver, (2004)

Within Disability Equality Training it is argued that if more time was spent ‘taking into account’ how the design and organisation of things affected disabled people then we might see real change. The emphasis within the social model approach is concern with looking at the differing ways in which people with impairments encounter what we call ‘disabling barriers’.

Disabling barriers are created when not enough attention is paid to the issues which impact on disabled people’s lives. For example, their access needs, the surroundings in which disabled people find themselves in or simply the negative attitudes people hold. Our conditions or impairments may reduce our functional ability , but more often than not, the disabling factor is external to the person and could be reduced or removed by ‘planning disabled people in’ or if needs be, adapting the world in which they want to live.

The social model sees disability as the creation of social restrictions which result from the oppression of people with impairments via systems and structures which serve in the interest of capitalism. The nature of this treatment – often discriminatory – is experienced in a myriad of ways. People with physical impairments and mental health service users, for example, can encounter very different disabling barriers due to how, historically, society has determined the social relations of the membership of these groups. This includes the use of pejorative labels. At a micro level of society, disabling barriers can be down to the failure to introduce inclusive practice however also at a macro level, disability is structured and takes on the character of institutional discrimination – e.g. the labour market, legal system, government policy, etc.

The emphasis within the social model is simple: look at ways of changing the social organisation of society in order to accommodate people with impairments. This has resulted in an array of ‘interpretations’ of the social oppression approach to disability ranging from reformist to revolutionary. Gleeson, for example, argues:

“The ‘materialist’ or ‘radical’ social model understands disability to be a logical outcome of the capitalist mode of production… This version of the social model insists that ‘the fundamental relationships of capitalist society are implicated in the social oppression of disabled people’. Logically, ‘the elimination of disablement…requires a radical transformation, rather than a reform of capitalism.’” (Gleeson 1997: 196)

How disabled people are subjected to differential and unequal treatment must also be addressed in terms of the changing economic and social climate.  Their active inclusion in the labour market, for example, directly corresponds to the demand for labour or the desire to slash public expenditure. In the struggle for emancipation, it is perhaps paradoxical that at the very moment disabled people secured some legal protection, the neoliberal agenda was about to bite.

Disability in the age of austerity

It is not enough to simply acknowledge disabled people are disabled by systems, structures and services which either fail to meet or inadequately meet disabled people’s needs. The impact of current Coalition policies – the reduction in public expenditure at national and local levels, the removal of services, the destruction of jobs and communities – will only result in greater hardship and social exclusion. There are services run by local authorities that are not run in the best interests of communities – including disabled people – but simply taking an axe to them does not provide us with an opportunity to change the service nor provide a better one. The cuts will take us away from and not towards building a more inclusive society; cuts will reduce our ability to expose the disabling nature of the society in which we live. Cuts right across the board will hamper ordinary people’s ability to take control over their lives and some disabled people, though marginalised within the mainstream now, will find the cuts bringing about their exclusion from all mainstream social activities. For others the cuts will result in premature death caused by worry, increased poor health and inadequate support arrangements.

The contours around who is and who is not to be regarded to be a ‘disabled person’ are changing as the Government attempts to dismantle the Welfare State. Within the field of social policy and reports from the mass media there’s almost a “common sense” understanding that ‘disabled people are dependent creatures who are unemployed and on benefits’. Perhaps now more than ever before, there is a need to grasp the extent to which the defining of ‘the disability problem’ is a social and political issue. It is time to articulate as the disabled people’s movement has done for over forty years: disability is a form of social oppression.

Bob Williams-Findlay

 

Reference and further reading:

 

Gleeson, B. J. (1997) Disability Studies: a historical materialist view. Disability and Society, 12 (2), 179-202.

 

Hunt, J.3 (20014) A Revolutionary Group with a Revolutionary Message

http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/Hunt-J-a-revolutionary-group-with-a-revolutionary-message.pdf

 

Oliver, M.19 (200420) The Social Model In Action: If I had a hammer?

http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/Barnes-implementing-the-social-model-chapter-2.pdf

 

Oliver, M. and Barnes, C. (2012) The New Politics of Disablement, Palgrave Macmillan, London

 

Jolly, D. (2012) A Tale of two Models: Disabled People vs Unum, Atos, Government and Disability Charities – Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) website http://www.dpac.uk.net/2012/04/a-tale-of-two-models-disabled-people-vs-unum-atos-government-and-disability-charities-debbie-jolly/ March 2012).

 

Williams-Findlay, R. (2011) ‘Lifting the Lid on Disabled People Against Cuts’, http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/williams-findlay-Lifting-the-Lid-on-Disabled-People-Against-Cuts-D-S-final.pdf

 

What is disability? And why is it a political question?

 

Introduction

 

What is disability? If you were to ask a mixed group of disabled and non-disabled people this question the chances are that the number of answers given could almost add up to the same number as those present in the room! The problem is that there are many different and often opposing ways of defining ‘the disability problem’. In general terms these definitions tend to fall into two broad camps; the traditional approaches with a focus on the degree to which a person’s condition or impairment prevents them from fulfilling the roles and expectations usually carried out by so called ‘normal people’ (sic) and social approaches which identify disability as being ‘imposed on top of our impairments by the social organisation of society’.

 

The main emphasis within this article will be an explanation of how and why the Disabled People’s Movement shifted the ‘disability problem’ away from viewing it as a negative attribute of an individual, towards addressing it as a form of social oppression.

 

Why definitions of disability are historically specific

 

There have always been people who, because of injury, disease or genetic makeup, have bodies that are not fully functional. Research shows that the treatment of people with impairments has varied greatly down the ages however it was not until the development of the capitalism mode of production was there a systematic approach to classify individuals into distinctive groups.

 

Gleeson explains:

 

“…. an important critique has been developed of the root cause of disablement – the capitalist system. Disability in its current form is said to have emerged at the time of the industrial revolution, with the growth of the commodity labour market a key factor in the process of disablement … (thus) the fundamental relationships of capitalist society are implicated in the social oppression of disabled people.”

 

By the middle of the nineteenth century British society had felt the impact of the Industrial Revolution. The harsh realities it produced created economic and social upheavals which brought about, in turn, moral panics around the fear of illness, disease and depravity. Social reformers sought to replace chaos with control – contours around what was considered ‘normal’ were drawn and those groups thought to be polluting society – outside ‘normality’ – were withdrawn from the public gaze.

 

The increased usage of institutionalisation, the birth of the eugenics movement and the proliferation of charities contributed towards ‘cleansing’ society of its mad and hapless cripples. Non-conformity was unacceptable and those people deemed incapable of keeping standards associated with ‘normal activities’ – productive and reproductive – had to be ‘taken care of’ in more senses than one.

 

These processes firmly established people with significant impairments as ‘outside’ mainstream society; however it took the First World War to shape the dominant approaches that viewed disability as ‘an individualised personal tragedy’. Medical practice since this time has focused firmly on how the body ‘functions’ vis-à-vis social tasks and doctors along with other professionals were concerned with the impact of impairments on people’s capabilities. In crude terms, the less someone functioned ‘like a normal person’ (sic), the more ‘disabled’ they were judged to be. Key ideologies such as individualism and normality contributed to the process of identifying ‘disability’ as the negative outcome of a loss of function caused by an individual’s impairment. This view of the ‘problem of disability’ remained largely unchallenged for the next fifty years.

 

 

Disability: a personal tragedy or social oppression?

 

When a challenge did come it came from the ranks of disabled people. Our starting point is to recognise that the Disabled People’s Movement emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s when groups of disabled people began to question why they were either excluded from or marginalised within mainstream social activities.

 

The roots of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) stem from 1972 when Paul Hunt wrote a letter to the Guardian inviting disabled people to join with him to form a group to tackle disability. Paul formed his ideas whilst living in an institution called Le Court. He and other residents had been involved in a long and bitter struggle with the authorities over the right of disabled people to have control over their lives within the institution and for some representation on the management committee. The significance of this particular struggle was that during the course of their struggle, he and others had already started asking some very fundamental questions about the nature of the helper/ helped relationship, the powerless that they were having imposed on top of their impairments, and about why this was the case.

 

Paul’s partner, Judy Hunt, wrote:

 

“UPIAS exposed disability as an oppressive relationship, and a power relationship of control. It was these ideas – taken on by the disabled people’s movement – that became the important liberating factor in the movement.”

 

The ideas of UPIAS were made accessible to disabled people and their organisations via one of its members, a disabled academic called Mike Oliver who developed two models of disability – the individual tragedy model and the social model. It is important to recognise that a model is a ‘schematic description of a system, theory, or phenomenon that accounts for its known or inferred properties and may be used for further study of its characteristics.’

 

So Oliver used the ‘individual tragedy model’ to explore the dominant ideologies and practice in relation to disability in the UK.

How ‘disability’ is defined and then employed in law, social policy and day-to-day social and cultural activities has been rejected by the disabled people’s movement because it presents disabled people in ways which are often considered negative and, as a result, increases the possibility that a disabled person could experience either discrimination or be forced to accept segregated services. The emphasis is on disabled people’s lack of ability, caused by their condition, which is then measured as a means of explaining (and legitimating) why they are unable to ‘fit into’ the mainstream of social activities.

 

Disabled people argue this approach misrepresents the facts. The alternative ‘social model’ approach has as its starting point the recognition that often having a condition or impairment does have an impact upon our lives; however this is not the direct cause of people with impairments’ social exclusion. If an individual evaluates their impairment in negative terms, which they may, this is not the same as being judged as ‘tragic’ in societal terms because of the perceived non-conformity of the body or mind and the subsequent absence of social value. It is precisely how people with impairments are ‘made sense of’ which ultimately leads to them not being ‘taken into account’ by given western societies. Thus it is within the social organisation of society; mode of production, societal structures, systems, culture and values, etc. where the social restrictions are created for disabled people.

 

The social oppression understanding of disability

 

Oliver explains:

 

“The more detailed elaboration of the social model stemmed from attempts to apply this insight into practice: firstly, in training of social workers, and secondly, in the design and delivery of disability equality training. … I was trying to provide my students with a way of applying the idea that it was society and not people with impairments that should be the target for professional intervention and practice.” Oliver, (2004)

 

Within Disability Equality Training it is argued that if more time was spent ‘taking into account’ how the design and organisation of things affected disabled people then we might see real change. The emphasis within the social model approach is concern with looking at the differing ways in which people with impairments encounter what we call ‘disabling barriers’.

 

Disabling barriers are created when not enough attention is paid to the issues which impact on disabled people’s lives. For example, their access needs, the surroundings in which disabled people find themselves in or simply the negative attitudes people hold. Our conditions or impairments may reduce our functional ability , but more often than not, the disabling factor is external to the person and could be reduced or removed by ‘planning disabled people in’ or if needs be, adapting the world in which they want to live.

 

The social model sees disability as the creation of social restrictions which result from the oppression of people with impairments via systems and structures which serve in the interest of capitalism. The nature of this treatment – often discriminatory – is experienced in a myriad of ways. People with physical impairments and mental health service users, for example, can encounter very different disabling barriers due to how, historically, society has determined the social relations of the membership of these groups. This includes the use of pejorative labels. At a micro level of society, disabling barriers can be down to the failure to introduce inclusive practice however also at a macro level, disability is structured and takes on the character of institutional discrimination – e.g. the labour market, legal system, government policy, etc.

 

The emphasis within the social model is simple: look at ways of changing the social organisation of society in order to accommodate people with impairments. This has resulted in an array of ‘interpretations’ of the social oppression approach to disability ranging from reformist to revolutionary. Gleeson, for example, argues:

 

“The ‘materialist’ or ‘radical’ social model understands disability to be a logical outcome of the capitalist mode of production… This version of the social model insists that ‘the fundamental relationships of capitalist society are implicated in the social oppression of disabled people’. Logically, ‘the elimination of disablement…requires a radical transformation, rather than a reform of capitalism.’” (Gleeson 1997: 196)

 

How disabled people are subjected to differential and unequal treatment must also be addressed in terms of the changing economic and social climate.  Their active inclusion in the labour market, for example, directly corresponds to the demand for labour or the desire to slash public expenditure. In the struggle for emancipation, it is perhaps paradoxical that at the very moment disabled people secured some legal protection, the neoliberal agenda was about to bite.

 

Disability in the age of austerity

 

It is not enough to simply acknowledge disabled people are disabled by systems, structures and services which either fail to meet or inadequately meet disabled people’s needs. The impact of current Coalition policies – the reduction in public expenditure at national and local levels, the removal of services, the destruction of jobs and communities – will only result in greater hardship and social exclusion. There are services run by local authorities that are not run in the best interests of communities – including disabled people – but simply taking an axe to them does not provide us with an opportunity to change the service nor provide a better one. The cuts will take us away from and not towards building a more inclusive society; cuts will reduce our ability to expose the disabling nature of the society in which we live. Cuts right across the board will hamper ordinary people’s ability to take control over their lives and some disabled people, though marginalised within the mainstream now, will find the cuts bringing about their exclusion from all mainstream social activities. For others the cuts will result in premature death caused by worry, increased poor health and inadequate support arrangements.

 

The contours around who is and who is not to be regarded to be a ‘disabled person’ are changing as the Government attempts to dismantle the Welfare State. Within the field of social policy and reports from the mass media there’s almost a “common sense” understanding that ‘disabled people are dependent creatures who are unemployed and on benefits’. Perhaps now more than ever before, there is a need to grasp the extent to which the defining of ‘the disability problem’ is a social and political issue. It is time to articulate as the disabled people’s movement has done for over forty years: disability is a form of social oppression.

 

Bob Williams-Findlay

 

Reference and further reading:

 

Gleeson, B. J. (1997) Disability Studies: a historical materialist view. Disability and Society, 12 (2), 179-202.

 

Hunt, J.3 (20014) A Revolutionary Group with a Revolutionary Message

http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/Hunt-J-a-revolutionary-group-with-a-revolutionary-message.pdf

 

Oliver, M.19 (200420) The Social Model In Action: If I had a hammer?

http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/Barnes-implementing-the-social-model-chapter-2.pdf

 

Oliver, M. and Barnes, C. (2012) The New Politics of Disablement, Palgrave Macmillan, London

 

Jolly, D. (2012) A Tale of two Models: Disabled People vs Unum, Atos, Government and Disability Charities – Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) website http://www.dpac.uk.net/2012/04/a-tale-of-two-models-disabled-people-vs-unum-atos-government-and-disability-charities-debbie-jolly/ March 2012).

 

Williams-Findlay, R. (2011) ‘Lifting the Lid on Disabled People Against Cuts’, http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/williams-findlay-Lifting-the-Lid-on-Disabled-People-Against-Cuts-D-S-final.pdf

 


15 comments

15 responses to “What is disability? And why is it a political question?”

  1. Baton Rouge says:

    All possible provision should be made to bring `disabled’ people into the workforce to share the productive work. It is no good telling someone that they cannot get disability benefit without then giving them a job on a living wage. From each according to their ability to each according to their need.

    • Karen M says:

      Disabled people can work in voluntary roles, many in user-led organisations. This is more flexible and more compassionate than paid work. They can help, with their first hand knowledge and understanding, others overcome various barriers and prejudices. They can help change and transform through advisory roles police and local authority policy. Could they do something similar in a drone position in a faceless organisation?

  2. Heather Downs says:

    Very clear introduction to the historical development of disability politics. Still much needed on the left; we still see access as a desirable (but not essential) addition to our usual activities.

  3. peteb says:

    still working through this bob. but i wanted to say this is really educational. i will try to summerise and discuss with my brother. it rings true and my thoughts that have been along the same lines are strengthened by your analysis.
    i think dipacs and other interventions are extremely valuable and really expands my understanding. capitalism demotes the unproductive and educates the many to believe we remain a civilised welfare state.
    witness the atos paid stooges to exact a spanish inquisition and undermine those that have suffered discrimination for their “category”.
    it is a woefull ondictment that most of the left has discriminated against the differently able by not ensuring its meeting places are accessable. Its good that left unity has recognised this. but it goes much further for those that find travel itself difficult or who have mental health issues which mean that confidence in a possitive welcome, or support to attend, is key.
    whilst our resources may be inadequate, Even so, left unity should break the mold and determine that it will do all it can to facilitate access, educate itself on different abilities and value all brothers and sisters in the struggle.
    pete b

  4. Andrew Crystall says:

    I was taught this – as part of Lecturing – with the “individual tragedy” model called the “medical” model.

    As I understand it, and please correct if I’m wrong;

    The Social Model focuses on equality of opportunity, the problem is not that the person is in a wheelchair, it is the building is not wheelchair accessible. It’s about reasonable proactive steps (ramps, hearing aids, etc.) just as much and more as reactions to presented issues.

    • Karen M says:

      The social model also takes account the sometimes contradictory values and norms of society. An example: In 2011 a recently refurbished pub had a rarely toilet for the use of disabled people (put in place presumably to comply with the regs- a social norm and value), staff decided to use it as a store cupboard- a social norm and value. It took 2 well-muscled men to take out the accumulated junk before the two wheelchair users in my group could use it for its purpose, it was also filthy and had no soap. This pub had said on the phone before our visit that the pub was fully wheelchair accessible but then didn’t check it was. Needless to say they had lost 10 customers.

  5. Robboh says:

    At last something about normal people. But I wish we would stop making posts an academic exercise. Are you writing for an MA or something? More reporting style please, and lets hear about people’s experiences of the cuts imposed by this criminal government.

  6. Paul Swann says:

    Thanks Bob for an excellent, if rather academic discussion of the Social Model.

    From my perspective, the key to understanding the Social Model is that it’s primarily a tool for social change. Ironically, it was a quote from one of the Social Model’s biggest critics, Tom Shakespeare, that drove this home for me.

    Carol Thomas helpfully outlines her points of agreement and disagreement with Tom Shakespeare in her riposte to his book ‘Disability rights and wrongs’: http://www.idris.ac.uk/book/me19943.pdf

    Independent Living is, of course, a framework for implementing the Social Model and addressing the environmental, institutional and attitudinal barriers created by a disabling society. The Welsh (Labour) Government will be publishing their Framework for Action on Independent Living on 19 September.

    The extent to which an enabling society can be created within a capitalist political economy is a moot point which flags up the importance of considering “the problem of disability” within a much broader context.

    Jenny Morris made this point very well in her Rowntree Foundation discussion paper ‘Rethinking disability policy’:
    http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/disability-policy-equality-summary.pdf

  7. elspeth parris says:

    Historically, throughout the centuries of the ‘Poor Law’ disability was included within the terms the ‘deserving poor’ and ‘the infirm’ and provision was made on that basis for disabled people to receive a slightly better and less punitive form of relief (ie benefits). The benefit system followed that pattern initially. By the end of the 20thC people who are disabled were, quite rightly, promoting a ‘can do’ attitude, fighting for the right to be treated as people who can do things as long as society reshapes itself to accept disabled people: an enabling attitude which saw the disability itself as not being a problem as the attitudes and assumptions of society.

    The problem now is that the ‘can do’ attitude is being used against us, without the necessary change in the attitudes and assumptions of society AND most importantly, without the recognition of the financial support required.

    The end result is that the current benefits system is heading towards actually being WORSE than the old Poor Law in its support of disabled people. Given how bad the Poor Law was, that is an astonishing statement to find myself making!

    • Karen M says:

      The ‘can do’ attitude can be imposed from the top down by people with little understanding of the barriers. I would go so far as to say this is down to the “individualism” touted by the right, in particular Thatcherites. The “deserving” is so much part of the media rhetoric that it is being used every day (dividing disabled people into ‘saints’ and ‘scroungers’. Funny too how ‘social security’ has become ‘disability benefits’, a semantic separation (exclusion?)of disabled people from other claimants.

  8. Ray G says:

    Great article Bob. It reminded me of some research I looked into ages ago on the idea of schools for ‘maladjusted children’. Instead of a definable category of maladjustment which can be properly measured, monitored and ‘cured’ the answer came back from local authorities that the number of maladjusted pupils was exactly the same in each area as the number of places available in schools for the maladjusted.

  9. Ray G says:

    A few points occur to me.
    1 – Ability and disability are not fixed categories but both part of a range of human features and skills, and the classification of disability can vary depending on the amount of money the powerful decide is available to be spent supporting people. It’s a moveable feast.

    2 – Capitalism (in the 18th Century onwards) brought a fresh obsession with idleness and economic usefulness and productivity, instead of a focus on either charity or complete disregard in earlier times. Thus in 1793, for example, an ‘Asylum for the Industrious Blind’ was set up in Edinburgh. Similar institutions for the ‘feeble-minded’ were set up around the same time. These were not, of course for the rich, who could be as blind and idle as they liked, and their ‘feeble-mindedness’ was less of a problem as it did not increase social disorder.

    • Karen M says:

      Your point about “ability” and “disability” is succinctly put. What is so apparent is that over the decades both terms have been used by Westminster as tools to reward or sanction people and that by deciding the use of the terms they make them social norms and values. Whilst I dislike top down policy I dislike even more the divisive and toxic language mediated between Westminster and the media so that disability becomes deliberately associated with being a “shirker” or “scrounger”. This unites both your points so ability=usefulness and disability=unproductive in a capitalist society. In this situation an industrious blind person becomes an able bodied “can-doer”- Professor Aylward’s dream.

    • Ray G says:

      Please help!!!!

      Half way through posting this I was blocked by an anti-spam firewall!! I was having difficulties posting so I tried posting smaller chunks, but as I was posting by copy and paste from a word document I was posting too rapidly and was mistaken for spam, and referred to another site that needed a password to enter (which obviously I don’t have). Now i can’t access the LU site at all!!

      Any suggestions anyone?? Help.

      • Ray G says:

        Sorry – I mean I can’t access the site from my home computer – I am writing this on the sly from work!


Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.

About Left Unity   Read our manifesto

Left Unity is a member of the European Left Party.

Read the European Left Manifesto  

ACTIVIST CALENDAR

Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.

Sat 6 Nov
COP26: Global Day of Action for the Climate 2021

As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the COP26 Global Climate Summit, take to the streets to demand global climate justice.

In London, we will meet at 12 noon outside the Bank of England, before marching to Trafalgar Square for a rally at 3pm.

More events »

GET UPDATES

Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.

CAMPAIGNING MATERIALS

Get the latest Left Unity resources.

Transform Journal – Issue 9

Broadsheet: No One is Illegal!

Broadsheet: Disaster Capitalism

More resources »