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International Day of Disabled People – or is it?

3 December 2021

December 3rd 2021 marks what is now termed as the International Day of People with Disabilities, although it was not always known as this. When this day was first established in 1992, it was known as the International Day of Disabled Persons.

This previous name reflected a social model understanding of disability. But as many Disabled people have pointed out, notably Mike Oliver and Colin Barnes in a 2006 article entitled ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ (accessible online, PDF) the language and ideas of the Disabled People’s Movement, especially in terms of social model thinking, have been hijacked and watered down by government and other bodies ‘for’ Disabled people so that it’s all made pretty unchallenging. The fact that what started out as the International Day of Disabled Persons is now the International Day of People with Disabilities is a case in point. This is why at the end of 2021 many disabled people are experiencing greater hardship and isolation than ever before. Because for all the rhetoric, rights are being removed and services vanishing. Shaping Our Lives’ research on user-led organisations has shown how many campaigning organisations led by Disabled people have disappeared in recent years due to funding cuts and austerity policies.

Shaping Our Lives is an organisation of Disabled people, which, when constituted in 2002, grounded itself in the social model. This involved an understanding that disability is an unequal social relationship or, as UPIAS had put it in 1976, ‘a form of social oppression’: ‘disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily excluded from participation in ordinary community life’ (UPIAS, 1976). This was felt to be a really important part of Shaping Our Lives’ identity, a core part of its reason for existence. A social model perspective allowed insight into ways of looking, acting and thinking at and about disability which made it clear that most of the real problems Disabled people experienced weren’t down to their impairments but were down to the physical and social barriers they experienced in daily life – whether in terms of poor access or in terms of hostile or demeaning attitudes. It also enabled this organisation to distinguish itself from other organisations, usually run by non-disabled people, which grounded themselves in a medical model understanding.

The medical model understanding regards disability as something that individual people ‘have’, or as something ‘wrong’ with them. It was expressed, for example, by the World Health Organisation in 1981 as:’ the loss or limitation of ability (arising from impairment) to carry out ordinary tasks considered normal for a human being, such as the ability to climb the stairs or walk to the shops’. Or, again, it was expressed in the 2010 Equality Act, which stated that ‘you’re disabled if you have an impairment or condition that has a long-term negative impact on your ability to carry out normal everyday activities’.

This individual model view – to use Mike Oliver’s (1990) term – which was the dominant view within a disabling culture – made it easy for everyone to maintain a narrative which said that the real problem of disability was to do with people’s bodies and minds, nothing to do with access.

Shaping Our Lives is a small organisation of Disabled people, which has struggled to make itself heard and to push a different perspective – a social model perspective – so that the barriers by which people with impairments were disabled could be progressively removed, so that the real causes of their social disadvantage could be identified and challenged.

So, Shaping Our Lives is today celebrating the International Day of Disabled People, the organisations they are part of and the continuing tireless campaigning for a social model approach across society.