Picture of Mike Oliver in his wheelchair with a woman and child

How the social model liberated people and inspired a movement – #DDA20

The social model of disability – the idea that society, not a person’s impairment, disables – inspired many disabled people to take action to change the law.

Professors Mike Oliver, one of the key individuals who developed the social model of disability, and Colin Barnes, who published definitive research showing that disabled people faced discrimination, tell us how the social model of disability liberated many disabled people and inspired a movement. 

This blog is shared as part of a series of stories to celebrate the campaigners who fought for civil rights. You can find out more on our website or on social media using #DDA20.

Professor Mike Oliver

The idea behind the social model stemmed from a document called the Fundamental Principles of Disability that was first published in the mid-1970s by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation.

This document argued that we were disabled by the barriers we faced in society, not our impairments. I was teaching a master’s course at the University of Kent, the first course in what has now become known as disability studies. The course was mainly for social workers and occupational therapists. I wanted to interpret the social model as a practical tool for professionals in their everyday practice in order for them to move away from a framework based on the individual model.

From theory to front line

I was staggered over the next few years that the social model became the central vehicle for forming a collective consciousness and connecting people with a wide range of experiences of disability. The social model became the basis for the emerging disability equality training and the disabled people’s movement that had been developing for a decade. I never took out the social model to become the all-encompassing, all-seeing, all-singing and all-dancing thing that it became by the end of the 1980s. For me, it’s always been a practical tool for disabled people to change the areas of the world they interact with, never a total explanation of all the experiences of all disabled people all of the time.

Building a community

Mike Oliver posing for a photo in a purple shirt at his homeI remember going to meetings in the 1970s where people with a range of impairments would spend most of the time talking about those different impairments and arguing over who deserved what and who didn’t. Once the social model got picked up by the community, disabled people had a common language to interpret different experiences of disabling barriers. The social model drew people into a movement who might not otherwise have been drawn in. The idea that disabled people needed to remove the disabling barriers that we all had in common was a unifying factor in the movement.

People with impairments often take individual responsibility for their impairments. I spent the first ten to fifteen years of my life with a spinal cord injury thinking that my impairment was my problem. The knowledge that I couldn’t easily enter bars or folk clubs when I went out on a Saturday night meant that I felt I had to take responsibility for taking enough friends to help me get upstairs or downstairs, as and when we might have been required.

Changing society

Once the Fundamental Principles document came out, I realised that I didn’t have to take responsibility because it wasn’t my problem. Society installed steps in the first place and I wasn’t the one who created barriers preventing me from participating in the same things as my non-disabled friends. Talking to other disabled people who had been through the same journey and shared this collective experience of attacking a whole range of barriers instead of existing as isolated individuals was hugely empowering.

Professor Colin Barnes

Disability has always been a huge part of my life. Both of my parents were disabled. I left school without qualifications, so the only job opportunity open to me was low-skilled and low-paid. For seventeen years I was a caterer, while taking night-school classes. The end result was that I went to Leeds University, graduating with a PhD and a published book on the experiences of young disabled people in day centres.

Disabled campaigners had been campaigning for years for anti-discrimination legislation without any success. Opponents of anti-discrimination legislation had cast doubt on how widespread discrimination was in society.

Building the case

The British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) set about finding the evidence that would support the case for anti-discrimination legislation. BCODP secured funding for a research project from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and advertised for a researcher to work under Mike Oliver. I applied and got the job.

My research was conclusive. Disabled people were three times more likely to be out of a job, and unemployed for longer periods, than non-disabled people. When disabled people did find jobs they were usually poorly paid and low-skilled, as was the case with my catering career. Disabled men working full-time earned on average a quarter less per week than non-disabled people working the same hours. And most of Britain’s public transport and public buildings were inaccessible and blocked off from disabled people.

Colin Bzrnes posing for a photo in a suit and tie‘Discrimination was widespread’

The social model liberated and inspired many disabled people. My research showed that what we had already known was definitively true. Discrimination was widespread. We needed the anti-discrimination legislation that we’d been campaigning for. And the opponents of anti-discrimination legislation had to accept research, based on their own figures.

You can find out more about the social model here. 

Find out more about the activists and campaigners who fought for civil rights and about the Disability Discrimination Act