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theweeksubAbandoning the “social model of disability” would mean “abandoning the struggle for a fairer and juster society”, according to a prominent disabled academic.
Professor Colin Barnes, one of the most significant figures in the development of the social model, told campaigners that it was probably even more relevant now than it was 30 years ago, because of the current government’s attempts to “reverse” progress on disability rights.
In a recorded video message, he told an event organised as part of a week of action led by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC): “If you abandon the social model… then you abandon the struggle for a fairer and juster society, not just for disabled people but for people generally.”
Barnes said there had been “a lot of nonsense” talked about the social model by politicians, policy-makers and academics over the last decade, which had undermined its importance and “led in many respects to the kind of situation we are now in”.
He said the social model was a tool that could be used to identify the economic, political and cultural forces that “shape disabled people’s lives” and create barriers that lead to their disadvantage, poverty and oppression.
Barnes told the audience that the social model separates the concepts of “disability” and “impairment”.
Disability, he said, is created by society, and prevents people with impairments from living a “normal” lifestyle.
Barnes said the social model was “probably the most important idea that has come out of the disabled people’s movement over the last 50 years”.
He added: “Most countries across the world recognise that disability discrimination is a major problem and that is undoubtedly a result of the social model.”
But he insisted: “The social model is not a theory, it is a tool with which to identify barriers, and with which to find solutions to eradicate those problems.”
And he said that the social model “does not deny the significance of impairment or its limitations on how we function”, and was “not a denial of the importance of medical interventions”.
The Reclaiming the Social Model event also heard from Anne Rae, chair of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People and a former member of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), which is often credited with giving birth to the social model in the 1970s.
She said the social model was “meant to be a tool to understand the difference between impairment and disability”, and that it “still matters today”.
She said she learned at UPIAS that “the only way to fight against oppression and discrimination in a society that – let’s face it – doesn’t like us, was to be disciplined and serious about what we were saying, and we had to make sense”.
She said: “If you’re talking to local authorities and government it is no good talking about how you feel.
“They don’t give a shit about how you feel. What they want to know is what your arguments are against the oppression that they are using against us.”
Debbie Jolly, a co-founder of DPAC, said that the barriers and exclusions faced by disabled people were “worsening” as a result of government cuts and reforms.
She said: “Disability rights, independent living and the social model remain the roots and the future of disability politics.
“Self-determination, resisting the attacks on future generations of disabled people, must be central.
“The social model is more relevant today than it has ever been. We must reclaim it as our central philosophy and we must also reclaim our futures.”
Disabled campaigner Kate Caryer told the event that the social model was “as important and relevant today” as it was in the 1980s when she was born.
She said her own research into parents of children without speech had shown that those who embraced the social model were much more positive about their children, and expected them to have “empowered futures”.
But she said that those parents who adopted a medical model perspective “strived for physical improvement” in their children and wanted them to attend “special schools with lots of physio”.
She said she had concluded that the social model was “a powerful tool” to enable a better life for disabled children.
Rob Murthwaite, a member of the DPAC steering group, said there was a need to “reclaim the model”, which he said had been “distorted” under the coalition.
He said: “In reclaiming it we need to radicalise it. We need to take the position… that oppression is rooted in [an economic] system that is based on profit.”
2 September 2013

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