Disability politics: living disabled lives in the age of austerity

Bob Williams-Findlay explores the issues

What is disability?

I’m someone who has lived all my life with cerebral palsy which was caused by brain damage at birth. My impairment, cerebral palsy, affects all four of my limbs and my speech. It should be noted however that by making this generalised statement about my impairment I’m actually revealing very little about the ‘relationship’ I have with my condition and to me this has always been a major factor in underpinning the barriers I’ve encountered in my life.

You see throughout my life the way I’ve viewed my impairment and experience of disability have largely been at odds with public and official perceptions of both who and what I am. During the 1970s, for example, I was being told that I was “too disabled” to stand any hope of realistically obtaining a job, whilst at the same time being informed I was “not disabled enough” to qualify for the existing disability benefits. This wouldn’t be the situation today, of course, because the mixed message would be different. Today, I might be still considered “not too disabled” to stand any hope of realistically obtaining a job, but once again, I’d be judged as “not disabled enough” to qualify for the top rate of the Personal Independence Payment.[1]

As a disabled academic and activist I would argue that like so many other disabled people I’m subjected to a dual identity; that both sides of this dual identity act to construct me as a “disabled person”, but in very different ways. On the one side there is the political and cultural identity forged through my engagement and understanding of disability politics, and on the other side lies what I regard to be the imposed part of my identity created by societal definitions of both impairment and disability.

This dual identity comes from the clash between the dominant ideologies and practices surrounding how “disability” is defined and acted upon, and the challenge to them from alternative ways of seeing and addressing disability.

These alternative ways of seeing and addressing disability underpin what is often called disability politics. Disability politics stem from the recognition of the need to self-organise as a means of defending the interests of the ‘disabled community’ in relation to the experience of social oppression and to seek alliances to change existing social relations. There are, of course, groups and individuals who have conflicting interests because the ‘disabled community’ isn’t a homogenous group; some people with impairments may belong to the upper layers of the class system and have the financial means to blunt the impact of disability and/or they may hold political views which distance themselves from other disabled people and the Disabled People’s Movement.

Crucial to the development of disability politics and the Disabled People’s Movement was Mike Oliver’s construction of two model of disability – the individual tragedy approach and the social oppression approach – which enabled an exploration of the struggle that has been taking place since the emergence of capitalism.[2] Within the individual tragedy model of disability, ‘the disability problem’ is viewed as a person’s non-conformity to ‘normality’ e.g. the inability to perform expected and accepted functional tasks – seeing, hearing, lifting, etc. – due primarily to the nature and degree of functional loss caused by their impairment. More often than not this non-conformity is measured by making judgemental comparisons between people with and those without impairments. For the majority of the twentieth century, if people with impairments live up to or exceed societal expectations of them they tend to be regarded as ‘brave’; if they fail, they were judged to live ‘tragic’ lives. What this meant for the individual is that in many circumstances, depending on degree of absence of normality, their lives were considered to be “not worthwhile” and as a result they were viewed as burdens on society.

The social model, on the other hand, explored the impact of dominant ideologies and practices which ultimately lead to ‘unequal and differential treatment’ experienced by disabled people because of the failure to ‘take into account’ those with impairments when creating the structures, systems and social environments that make up mainstream society. It’s argued that it’s the systematic exclusion from, and marginalisation within, mainstream society that disables people with impairments rather than the actual impairments themselves. Therefore disability within the social model is viewed as the ‘social restrictions’ that are imposed on top of disabled persons’ impairments by the ways in which society is socially arranged.

This example illustrates the different approaches: if a wheelchair user is confronted by steps, then dominant approaches view the person’s inability to walk as being the disabling factor, whereas the social approach sees the lack of access as being the disabling barrier.

The Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation[3] (UPIAS) were instrumental in arguing that ‘disability [was] the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.’[4] Thus disability was seen as a particular form of social oppression. I would however take issue with this definition offered by UPIAS because I believe it’s precisely the ways in which people with impairments are ‘taken into account’ ideologically, politically and socially which then ultimately leads to them being excluded and marginalised within a specific capitalist society. In other words the ways in which society has historically seen people with impairments and responded to them within capitalist societies has laid the basis for their social oppression.[5] Societal perceptions of “disability” are historically and culturally specific and therefore can change.

The emergence of post-social democratic disablism

It’s my opinion that the crisis within global capitalism and the neoliberal agenda unfolding in Britain has produced a major transformation of how people with impairments are both seen and treated within the age of austerity and this will deepen the nature of the social oppression disabled people experience.[6]

Two other factors need to be taken into account. Firstly, Marta Russell and Ravi Malhotra stated that:

It is also evident that the definition of disability is not static but fundamentally linked to the needs of capital accumulation. Hence, when the welfare state entered into ‘crisis’,        governments attempted to narrow the definition of disablement and to cut entitlement levels.[7]

Secondly, Oliver’s two models of disability pre-date the turn towards neoliberal economics and social policy and as a consequence, new ways of addressing the social situation facing disabled people are emerging via commodification and exclusionary practices.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and supporters hold a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London. Read more about the campaign here - dpac.uk.net/ Photo: RonF October 22, 2014
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and supporters hold a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London. Read more about the campaign here – dpac.uk.net/
Photo: RonF
October 22, 2014

We are facing a paradox. As the Government strives to dismantle the welfare state, reduce public expenditure on services and benefits, this necessitates a re-defining of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Disabled people are caught up in this re-defining because the ideologically driven policies of the Government are using methodology which sets disabled people up to fail in order to establish who is and who isn’t a ‘disabled person’.

Soon only a minority of people who were on disability benefits will pass the new strict functional tests. The notion of ‘extra cost arising from disability’ is currently under attack. These policies and approach towards disability create at the same time from a social model perspective the material social conditions which will increase disability among the disabled community. This current paradox of course impacts upon disabled people’s dual identity. Many people with impairments are finding themselves no longer classed as ‘disabled’ or not significantly enough to be deemed as ‘in need’ of support.

Recently, I heard the absurd comment that buildings and social environments are much more user-friendly and accessible, therefore, wheelchair users shouldn’t have too much trouble ‘moving around’ these days! This ignorance beggars belief and demonstrates a total lack of understanding in terms of the diverse nature of wheelchair users and the ongoing disabling barriers they encounter. Their lifestyles are so much different to those of non-disabled people as a result. It would perhaps be useful to outline how a ‘disabled person’ is viewed via disability politics.

Oliver, for example, argues:
For me disabled people are defined in terms of three criteria;
(i)   they have an impairment;
(ii)  they experience oppression as a consequence; and
(iii) they identify themselves as a disabled person.

I therefore identify myself as a disabled person because it’s a collective political identity. I believe, as I’ve already stated, people with impairments are subjected to ‘unequal and differential treatment’ because of the ways in which society is socially arranged. This social oppression, I would argue, occurs at both the macro and micro levels of society. It’s nevertheless vital to consider the methodological approach adopted by Oliver when exploring our social oppression:\

Using the generic term [disabled people] does not mean that I do not recognise differences in experience within the group but that in exploring this we should start from the            ways  oppression differentially impacts on different groups of people rather than with differences in experience among individuals with different impairments.[8]

Exploring how oppression impacts on different groups stands in sharp contrast to how people are assessed in the UK for benefits which is about individualising personal experience in terms of set descriptors.

When Maria Miller, the then Minister for Disabled People, introduced the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) consultation document she claimed PIP would have the social model as its methodological framework. However when Lord Freud introduced the Welfare Reform Bill, he implied PIP would adopt the International Classification of Functioning approach which replaced the International Classification of Impairment, Disability and Handicap (ICIDH). What is absent here is context. Within the introduction to ICF it states that the ICF is:

….clear about what it classifies: its universe, its scope and its units of classification… it is about all people… this classification does not classify people, but describes the situation          of each person within an array of health or health related domains”[9]

The crucial point here is that ICF is about health related domains; however it’s important to note that the World Health Organisation made some acknowledgement of the importance of social interaction when it stated:

The classification also recognizes the role of physical and social environmental factors in affecting disability outcomes.[10]

Despite this fact, ICF remains focused on bodily function and not on the social restrictions experienced by disabled people. The Disability Living Allowance (DLA) test wasn’t rooted in either the social approach or the ICF approach, but it did acknowledge the existence of social barriers.  The current PIP descriptors certainly don’t comply with either methodology, but on a cruder bio-psycho-social model developed by the American disability company, UNUM[11] The outcome is that PIP is about the ‘medicalisation’ of disabled people’s lives and through this process disqualify many of them for the benefit.

When the Government’s propaganda machine goes on about ‘serving those with the most needs’ exactly who are they talking about? We must be clear: how are these ‘needs’ being assessed by the agents of DWP – Maximus and Capita – as they take little or no account of the real disabling barriers that impact upon disabled people’s lifestyles!

The underlying methodology of the social model of disability requires an examination of how a given society imposes social restrictions on top of disabled people’s impairments. Disablism takes place at the macro and micro levels of society and in my opinion the policies around DLA and PIP are determined at the macro level, but the implications and impact of them take place at the micro level. It is usually at the micro level that disabling barriers are experienced by a disabled person through negative interactions that take place between disabled people and their social environments. Vic Finkelstein acknowledged that both the ICIDH and ICF both identify these interactions, however, through dominant ideologies and methodology they place the responsibility for these negative interactions solely on an individual’s actual impairment.

For Finkelstein both the impairment and the social environment influence the interactions, but it’s within the social environment where it can be determined whether or not these negative interactions can lead to social restrictions and oppression.[12] Within this approach there isn’t a denial of the realities of impairment, what it does do is break the causation that both ICIDH and ICF place on an individual’s impairment. In other words disability can be reduced, removed or taken into account by altering social relations within given environments rather than expect people with impairments to conform to ‘normality’ or be socially excluded.

The impaired body as a site of struggle

Historically, it’s been the public gaze, the social construction of impairment as ‘abnormal’, that enabled it to be viewed as ‘tragedy’ or as ‘Other’. This then shaped the oppressive side of the disabled label/ identity. As Paul Abberley pointed out, it’s our bodies that are struggled over – the battleground where we’re oppressed daily by being told to overcome or come to terms with disability – expected to conform to ‘their normality’. [13] Returning to the Russell and Mahotra quotation which pointed out that definitions aren’t static; the turn towards neoliberal economics and social policy required a break with the past. The individual tragedy approach hindered this process and has been sidelined by the bio-psycho-social approach and other ideological shifts that were signalled through what I called, ‘Janus politics’ – using key concepts from the old Disabled People’s Movement, such as independent living, choices and rights, etc., and transforming them into agents of the neoliberal agenda. In material terms, as the Disabled People’s Movement waned, Blair and then Cameron, fostered the market centred ‘Disability Movement’ that employed Janus politics – Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Disability Rights UK, et al – to promote personalisation and inclusivity via a ‘rights’ approach. Anderson and Galloway state:

The shift in neo-liberal economies from the ‘medical’ approach to the ‘rights’ approach to disability is part of the greater shift of responsibility for social and economic well-being from the state to individuals. The ‘rights approach’ to disability has as its focus inclusion and integration with mainstream society.[14]

The Government policies are likely to reduce my public identity as a ‘disabled person’ and question the validity of how I’ve conducted by life over the last thirty years. What I’m about to experience is an increase in the ambiguity of living a disabled life – the less the State regards me as ‘disabled’, the more disabled I’m likely to become. This is an experience many disabled people face right now across Britain.

Disabled people are being scapegoated, transformed into commodities and expected to be self-reliant, due to the failure of global capitalism to deal with its own crisis. Unless British society comes to terms with the reality of disability – as social restriction – within the lives of people with impairments there is every chance that we will see the development of an underclass that will exist beyond the margins of society, living in abject poverty and misery. Many disabled people believe they can see the spectre of fascism waiting in the wings, after all during 1930s Germany it was sick and disabled people who were the first victims of Nazism. George Orwell fought Fascism; he wrote about Big Brother and ‘double-speak’, I wonder what he would have made of contemporary British society and its ‘rights approach’ towards disabled people?


[1] Personal Independence Payment (PIP) helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or a disability if you’re aged 16 to 64
[2] Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, London, Macmillan
[3] Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation was an early organisation of disabled people in Britain founded in 1972. Vic Finkelstein and Mike Oliver were founder members of UPIAS and leading disabled academics in the UK.
[4] Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (1974) Fundamental Principles of Disability, London, UPIAS page 14
[5] Findlay, B. (1994) ‘Quality and Equality in Education: The Denial of Disability Culture’. In P. Ribbins & E. Burridge (eds), Improving Education, London, Cassell Publishers. 126 – 140
[6] Oliver, M. The Social Construction of the Disability Problem – http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/Oliver/p%20of%20d%20Oliver6.pdf
[7]Russell, M. and Malhotra, R. (2002) The political economy of disablement: advances and contradictions. Socialist Register, York University – page 212 Marta Russell was an American writer and disability rights activist and Ravi Malhotra is a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities
[8] Oliver, M. (1994) Capitalism, disability and ideology: A materialist critique of the Normalization principle – page 3
[9] World Health Organisation (2001) “Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) Geneva  http://www.who.int/classifications/icf/en/
[10] Disabled World – Disability News for all the Family: http://www.disabled-world.com/disability/types/#ixzz1mH0vGP61
[11] Jolly, D. (2013) A Tale of Two Models, Disabled People Against Cuts. Debbie is a co-founder of DPAC and a disabled researcher.
[12] Finkelstein, V. (1989) The Evolution of Disability Awareness – http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/finkelstein/strathclyde.pdf
[13] Abberley, P  (1997) The Concept of Oppression and the development of a social theory of disability in ‘Disability Studies: Past Present and Future’ edited by Len Barton and Mike Oliver (1997); Leeds: The Disability Press, pp. 160 – 178) Paul Abberley was a UK disabled academic/activist
[14] Anderson, M., & Galloway, L. (2012) The value of enterprise for disabled people. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, 13(2), 93-101. 10.5367/ijei.2012.0070 – Page 96 Laura Galloway (School of Management, Heriot?Watt University, Edinburgh, UK) and Maggie Anderson (Napier University, Edinburgh, UK)


  1. “… the less the State regards me as ‘disabled’, the more disabled I’m likely to become. This is an experience many disabled people face right now across Britain.” Spot on

  2. In Summer 2016, when I finish university, I will leave the UK forever and move to a country with no austerity: the austerity measures have made me extremely disloyal to the UK because of the way they treat the disabled, while they propose wrong solutions to terrorism.

    After I leave the UK any hope of me returning to the UK will depend on Corbyn winning in 2020. If not, then in 2021 I will naturalise in the country of my choice, renounce my citizenship and vow never to return to the UK, because of the way we were treated.

    If the government does not care about me, I have a right to leave Britain forever and switch my allegiance to a country that cares about me, since not everyone can march for reasons of no fault of their own.

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