A social theory of disability

WHEN THE first edition of Michael Oliver’s The Politics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach was published in 1990, the disability rights movement was on the rise in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the US in the 1980s, grassroots organizations were organizing for accessibility in transportation, support for independent living, and equal rights. For example, ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) used civil disobedience to halt public transportation to protest the lack of accessible transit. In 1988, students at Gallaudet University, a university for the hearing impaired, marched, blockaded, and occupied their campus winning the first deaf president in their 124-year history. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. The UK experienced similar grassroots movements and legislation related to protection for people with disabilities.

In light of this progress, in the first edition, Oliver called for a “social theory of disability” to challenge the medical and psychological dominance of theories about disability. “Such a theory cannot be produced until the various academic disciplines begin to take both the issue of disability and the experiences of disabled people seriously.” Oliver put forth that disablement is not a problem located in the individual, but an institutional problem, shaped by economic, political, and ideological forces. In 1990, Oliver was optimistic that the movement would continue to improve conditions for people with disabilities.

Since then, more than thirty colleges and universities offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in disability studies in the United States. Governments across the globe have passed legislation and created offices or departments for people with disabilities. Countless nonprofit organizations have sprung up to provide services and advocate for people with disabilities.

These developments have certainly improved the lives of some with disabilities. Yet, twenty-plus years on, most people living with disabilities have not witnessed a significant change in their standard of living. Many people with disabilities remain segregated in schools, housing, and employment. The current economic crisis has led to drastic cuts to social services, and privatization of services is lowering or threatening to lower the standard of living for most, including those with disabilities who rely on the state for services.

In this new edition, The New Politics of Disablement, Oliver and Barnes not only update the previous edition; they survey the theories and origins of disablement and the ways in which disability is represented in society at large. They put forth a perspective of why the disability rights movement has failed to bring about significant change, and offer a critique of the dominant postmodernist/poststructuralist theories in disability studies today. This 2012 edition is also written in the context of a global capitalist crisis, and is written in the spirit of bringing transformative change for people with disabilities, as well as all oppressed people. Oliver and Barnes offer a historical materialist approach for describing how the category and meaning of disability arose with the rise of capital, and how the meaning has changed as capitalism’s needs change.

The authors open with a survey of definitions of disability, the origin of disability studies, and the origin of disability itself. They start with the movements of the 1960s that began to challenge long-held assumptions and theories based in seeing disablement as a personal tragedy and an individual medical issue, explained through a person’s functional limitations or deficits. Through struggle, they recognized common characteristics of their experience of disability. “Their [activists’] aim was to shift public and policy attention away from established orthodoxy toward the role of ‘disabling’ economic, political and cultural barriers that prevented people with disabilities from participating in mainstream society as equal citizens.” 

Oliver is often cited as coining the term “social model of disability” in 1981, and Oliver and Barnes respond to critiques of the model in this edition. They explain, “The social model breaks the causal link between impairment and disability. The reality of impairment is not denied but is not the cause of disabled people’s economic and social disadvantage.” They go on to point out that the social model was not intended to be a social theory but rather to be used as a tool to bring about political change, allowing for collective organization, and as an alternative to the individual/medical model. They acknowledge that the social model is a simple view of a complex issue, despite the fact that many other writers have used it in their own social theories.

Presenting a survey of the anthropological and sociological research on disability, the authors summarize the range of views of disability and impairment in different cultures and the various ways in which cultures have responded to difference and disability. They provide a useful materialist view of how disablement as a social “problem” or category came to be. Here the authors pull from a Marxist, materialist view of human history, drawing from a number of authors.

In pre-industrial times, disabled people were not excluded from making economic contributions, although they may have been viewed at the “bottom” of the social ladder. With changes in the mode of production and social relations that industrial capitalism brought, people with certain impairments were not able to work or were not seen as desirable. In addition, as the unit of production moved from the household to individual wage earners in the workplace, it became more difficult for those with impairments to find work or for the family to support them in the home. Urbanization, segregation, and changing ideology all contribute to the rise of disablement as a social “problem.”

In turn, the rise of early capitalism was related to subsequent changes in ideology and the way of thinking about people with disabilities, resulting in a shift from a religious understanding (i.e., disability as a result of sin) to a scientific or medical understanding. The authors survey the development of an ideology of individualism under capitalism and the rise of the medicalization of disability. Conditions or impairments viewed as moral or social problems previously became the subject of medical intervention. This period also saw the rise of the institutions as a way to deal with the “social problem” of disability, provision of care outside the family, and as a way of social control of the poor. Seen as a “personal tragedy,” disability is seen as an individual problem to be solved by meeting personal needs, which in turn creates dependency, rather than viewing the problem as located in the way that work is organized and calling for a change in fundamental economic structures.

The final section, “Agendas and Actions” is rooted in a discussion of the current economic crisis and the response to disability in the context of capitalist crisis. Throughout the book, the authors follow the twists and turns of capitalist development and its effect on how disability is defined and how capitalism responds to it, including the recent global crisis. One response of the market is in the privatization of services and the rise of charitable organizations, neither of which lead to self determination for people with disabilities. Drastic cuts to state services in an age of austerity also threaten day-to-day survival and quality of life. Another response is in rights-based solutions to discrimination. The authors challenge this solution and see its limitations: “Focusing on a rights route to emancipation as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end was always likely to be counterproductive . . . having legal rights does not mean they will be enforced, and even if they are, that enforcement will achieve the desired aims.”

Issues of genetic testing and modification, euthanasia, and biotechnology are raised. Citing Disabled People’s International, societies “spend millions on genetic research to eradicate disease and impairment but refuse to meet our needs to live dignified and independent lives.” This sort of response, Oliver and Barnes argue, undermines changes that would support and “indeed celebrate the reality of human diversity, difference and frailty.” They warn “such an approach fits snugly into the social and economic relations of capitalism in seeking to eradicate the ‘abnormal’ and those who become, or even might become, an economic burden.”

The New Politics of Disability offers a useful critique of the decline of the disabled peoples movement of previous decades. Capitalism adapts to and envelops new ideas, such as the absorption of parts, to the movement into nonprofit organizations or offices in the government. They write, “indeed, there are concerns among some disability activists that the assimilation of disability politics into mainstream political agendas will undermine the more radical aims and political struggles by disabled people and their organizations for social justice.” The authors also note the limitations of identity politics, which, they argue, tends to neglect the economic and material bases of inequality as well as the goal of “political-economic redistribution.”

A clear vision of how to move disability struggles forward is lacking, note the authors. But this is not surprising, given the current state of disability rights activism and the global crisis of capitalism. Countries are seeking to fix the crisis on the backs of workers, students, and people—such as those with disabilities—who rely on government services. The decline of Marxism and historical materialism in the social sciences and its impact on theory, the fall of the Soviet Union, dominance of the global market, the decline of labor unionism, and the disappearance of the working class are all offered as reasons for why the current movement lacks this clear vision.

Oliver and Barnes note their “waning optimism” since the first edition, which outlined hope for the future of the disability rights movement. While they note these challenges and offer “little prospect of transforming capitalism in the foreseeable future,” they conclude, “We still believe that the only long-term political strategy for disabled people is to be part of a far wider struggle to create a better society for all.” They foresee an end to disability oppression only “when the oppression of all is overcome and that will only happen with major structural, economic, political, and cultural transformation as well as resistance.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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