I’m disabled but I don’t have a disability. For a long while, I was both disabled and able-bodied at the same time. Does that sound like it doesn’t make any sense?
Let me explain.
I know that non-disabled people often worry about what language to use when talking to or about disabled people but generally, as long as you are clearly being respectful, we don’t get upset. However, if you want to understand the words many of us prefer – and understand why – then this post might be what you’ve been looking for.
You might know that there are debates around whether we should be called “disabled people” (identity-first language) or “people with disabilities” (people-first language). The answer is tied into something called the Social Model of Disability, the “father” of which, Mike Oliver, died this week. He made the theory accessible and, in doing so, changed everything for disabled people.
What is the Social Model of Disability?
The Social Model of Disability is distinct from the Medical Model of Disability (which says that disabled people are individuals with problems that need to be tackled on an individual level) and the Charity Model of Disability (which says that disabled people are to be pitied and dealt with by paternal organisations staffed by non-disabled people who profess to know our lives better than we do).
The Social Model, by contrast, says that the barriers disabled people face are not based on our bodies (as the Medical Model suggests) but are, instead, erected by society every time they build a set of steps without a ramp or a church without a hearing aid loop. Our health conditions are not what disable us, the world we live in does that instead.
This is why we describe ourselves as disabled people, not people with disabilities. Disability is what surrounds us, not what we are. We are disabled by the society we live in. I don’t have a disability – I don’t carry that responsibility around. I am disabled by this world.
To be disabled, somebody has to have some kind of condition that has a significant impact on the way they live their life. It has to be long-term, rather than something like a temporarily broken leg. And once you have this prerequisite – a health condition or similar – you can describe yourself as disabled if that is how you identify.
The condition you have, which might be schizophrenia or hypermobility or ME, is called an impairment.
What the Social Model did
The Social Model of Disability was revolutionary. Finally, instead of being patronised by charity workers or blamed for our lack of ability to work when nobody would hire us because of their preconceptions about what disabled people can do, a model was put out into the world that firmly placed disability as an oppression that disabled people face.
It’s not because you’re blind that you don’t have a job, it’s that people are disablist and don’t want to hire a blind person.
It’s not because you can’t walk that you can’t go to the women’s group meeting, it’s that architects are (still) ignoring disabled people’s needs and failing to account for wheelchair users and others who cannot walk easily. And that groups are (still) arranging meetings in these inaccessible places.
It’s not because you have brittle bones that you can’t socialise in the local LGBT haunts, it’s that the LGBT start-up hired a building full of steps and narrow doorways and the PA support services won’t work late enough in the evening to assist you to get there and into bed afterwards.
Framing disability in such a way was exciting and revelatory. No longer were we to blame for our lack of social life, jobs or access to the world, instead we were placing the blame where it belonged: in the society that – physically and attitudinally – blocks us from participating. Because somebody who believes a disabled person has no place in the board room or their lover’s bedroom is just as limiting as somebody who refuses to invest in a ramp for their restaurant or shop. Those attitudes get in the way and prevent us from living our full lives.
The Social Model takes the focus away from our bodies. Trying to differentiate people who are “able-bodied” from disabled people makes no sense because many people are disabled by psychiatric conditions or are learning disabled in ways that they would argue did not detract from their body being able. Under the Social Model, people who are not disabled are non-disabled. This is why we talk of disablism rather than ableism – because ableism, like being able-bodied, puts the focus on an individual’s body (“ability”) when that is not where it should lie. Our “ability” has no bearing on our ability to interact with the world when we do not face external barriers.
What the Social Model is not
Contrary to popular belief, framing your life around the Social Model rather than the Medical Model of Disability does not mean rejecting medicine. You can still see doctors and take your medication – in fact, it is obviously recommended – and there is no relevant understanding of the Social Model that rubbishes those things. The Medical Model is different to medicine itself. They are about how you see the world, not the tablets you take.
Similarly, the Social Model is often criticised for lacking an understanding of the lives of people who have conditions such as chronic pain or depression, where at a surface glance, a prevalence of ramps and job offers would not necessarily improve things for people. In fact, that is a failure to properly explain the Social Model, not a failure of the Model itself.
The Social Model presents a liberating view of such restrictive impairments. It frames the world around us, which tells us we are worthless if we are depressed and out of work, or frames the world that restricts the painkillers we need for arbitrary reasons as a world that is oppressive and disabling. It challenges the entire fabric of society that insists we must participate and work in a way that is traditionally understood to support capitalism, and it turns it on its head.
Under the Social Model, every disabled person is valuable and their contribution is important. Under the Medical Model, every disabled person is a problem to be solved, an individual issue that has no bearing on wider society.
The legacy of Mike Oliver
Mike Oliver ‘argued that disabled people were oppressed by society, rather than seeing disability as “a personal tragedy”.
‘This meant, said Oliver, that he “no longer had to accept full responsibility” for his impairment and understood instead that his “personal troubles were also public issues”, an insight that led him to develop the UPIAS principles and define the social model as the key to understanding disabled people’s oppression.’
In doing so, he turned a pamphlet of ideas from the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation into a sociological theory that took away the blame from our lives and placed it where it belongs; and where it will, if sufficient will is in place, be resolved.
Photo: Sinn Féin