SPECTRUM’s Philosophies: 2: What is The Social Model of Disability?


In this, the second of two main articles, SPECTRUM talks about its guiding philosophies – they dictate not just what we do, how we do it, but MOST IMPORTANTLY WHY WE DO IT

The two central philosophies are:

  • Independent Living
  • The Social Model of Disability

SPECTRUM was one of the organisations that helped define these philosophies. 30-40 years on, these terms are still widely misunderstood. In this the first of two articles, we’ll explain what we mean by these terms, and why they are so important to Disabled People around the world.

Our previous article discussed what Independent Living is and why it is so important to us. This article is about the Social Model of Disability.

More and more Disabled People are talking about the Social Model of Disability.

For many, understanding it has changed their lives. SPECTRUM sees it as its guiding philosophy, but it is still widely misunderstood. This article aims to explain the Social Model of Disability in non-academic terms.

The document serves as an introduction to these concepts. They are usually explored in more detail on Disability Equality training courses and Personal Development courses (available from SPECTRUM and many other organisations run and controlled by Disabled People). These courses enable Disabled People to relate the principles of the Social Model and Equality to their own life.

The Social Model of Disability has changed many people’s outlook on life – and it could change yours. If, after reading this, you would like to talk to people whose lives have been dramatically enhanced as a result of understanding and applying the Social Model, please contact SPECTRUM (info@spectrumcil.co.uk)

A different way of looking at ourselves

The Social Model of Disability enables Disabled People to look at themselves in a more positive way which increases self-esteem and independence.

Disabled People often feel a loss, for all the things they would like to do, but feel they cannot do; a loss of goals and dreams that seem unobtainable. Disabled People often feel they are a burden on family and friends, and a problem for doctors who cannot cure them.

This traditional view of disability is called “the Medical Model of Disability”, because it sees people as a medical problem. As a result, Disabled People are expected to see their impairment as their problem, something they will have to make the best of and accept that there are many things they simply cannot do (and cannot expect to be able to do).

It ignores how ‘bad’ a person’s impairment is. Instead it establishes that everyone should be considered equal and demonstrates that it is society that has negative attitudes about Disabled People, and it is society which erects ‘barriers’ that prevent Disabled People from participating and restricts their opportunities. Society is therefore said to ‘disable’ them.

How does the Social Model of Disability work?

The social model looks beyond a person’s impairment at all the relevant factors that affect their ability to be a full and equal participant in society.

What else is relevant?

The Social Model of Disability shows that it is barriers that disable people, not their impairments. For instance: heavy doors and inaccessible public transport are two examples of what makes travelling such a hassle – not the fact that someone has an impairment.

Every Disabled Person can make their own list of the barriers that limit their participation. When these barriers and other people’s negative attitudes are considered, it is easy to see how Disabled People’s opportunities are limited by a multitude of barriers.

The Social Model of Disability states that the solution is to remove these barriers, rather than the alternative Medical Model of Disability which relies for a solution on curing all people who have impairments. (Which in many cases is not possible, desirable or socially acceptable).

For a practical example, many people living with reduced eyesight are given a simple piece of equipment – a pair of glasses. Without them they would be excluded from full participation in society and would therefore be disabled by it.

Similarly, the social model solution to the fact that a wheelchair user is disabled because they cannot use public transport is simple – make public transport accessible to everyone, by way of ramps and high visibility guide rails!

table one

This Social Model of Disability approach to disability, which sees the problem as society’s barriers and attitudes, rather than the person’s impairment, allows Disabled People to lift the ‘blame’ from their shoulders and place it squarely onto society’s.

The Social Model of Disability empowers Disabled People to challenge society to remove the barriers that disable them.

table 2

It was Disabled People themselves who defined the Social Model of Disability. (See history section on the following page). They defined disability as:

 “the disadvantage or restriction caused by a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and excludes them from mainstream activity.”

The Social Model of Disability defines the words “Impairment” and “Disability” differently, as follows:

Impairment: Lacking part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.

Disability: The disadvantage of restriction or activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from participation of in the mainstream of social activities. Disability is therefore a particular form of social oppression.

While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disabling outcomes or barriers unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

As a result of understanding the Social Model of Disability, many Disabled People now understand that it is society’s reaction to their impairment that is disabling, not the impairment itself.

A fundamental aspect of the Social Model of Disability concerns equality. The struggle for equality is often compared to the struggles of other socially marginalised groups. Equal rights give empowerment and the “ability” to make decisions and the opportunity to live life to the fullest.

The Social Model of Disability focuses on changes required in society. EG:

  • Attitudes, for example a more positive attitude towards Disabled People, or not underestimating the potential quality of life of those with impairments,
  • Social support, for example help dealing with barriers; resources, aids or positive discrimination to overcome them, for example providing a buddy to explain work culture for an employee with autism,
  • Information, for example using suitable formats (e.g. Braille) or plain English or coverage (e.g. explaining issues others may take for granted),
  • Physical structures, for example buildings with sloped access and lifts, or contrasting colour schemes to aid visually impaired people,
  • Flexible work hours for people with sleep disorders or, for example, for people who experience anxiety/panic attacks in rush hour traffic.

wheelchair stairs

A Brief history of the Social Model of Disability

In 1975, the UK organisation Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) claimed: “In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

In 1983, the disabled academic Mike Oliver coined the phrase “Social Model of Disability”. It was subsequently extended to include those with learning difficulties, people with emotional, mental health or behavioural difficulties, and others.

Further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_model_of_disability



Baroness Jane Campbell and Sian Vasey Discuss SPECTRUM CIL’s Disability Manifesto 2017

SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living was delighted to welcome Baroness Jane Campbell, a cross bench peer in the House of Lords and Sian Vasey, a Disabled film maker, to Southampton to discuss all things Independent Living related with our Chief Executive, Ian Loynes. They covered a wide range of topics from employment to welfare reform, not forgetting Brexit of course. You can watch highlights of their conversation below.

All of them agreed that none of the political parties were yet offering a comprehensive disability strategy that would enable Disabled People to enjoy true equality within society.

If you want to read the full manifesto, please visit our Disability Manifesto page.




Disability Manifesto 2017: Welfare Reform


Welfare Reform

The policies of austerity have hit Disabled People particularly badly. Since the Government’s Emergency Budget in 2010, Disabled People have seen massive cuts to their benefits and support services, including £18 billion from the benefits budget.

More Disabled People than non-disabled People are living in poverty. Welfare reforms have had a particularly disproportionate, cumulative impact on Disabled People’s rights to live independently and enjoy an adequate standard of living

UK data from 2015/16 shows that 26% of families where at least one member is disabled were living in poverty compared with 20% of families with no disabled members.

Across the UK, 18.4% of Disabled People aged 16-64 were considered to be in food poverty in 2014 compared with just 7.5% of non-disabled People. Disabled People over the age of 65 were twice as likely as non-disabled People in the same age group to be in food poverty: 6.8% compared with 3.3%.

Disabled People and Carers have already experienced a drop in income of £500 million since 2010 and most recently, one calculation is that with six simultaneous welfare cuts taking place, up to 3.7 million Disabled People will lose £28.3 billion of support by 2018. Twice as many Disabled adults live in persistent poverty compared with non-disabled adults.i

When the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was introduced to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the distance that a person was unable to walk in order to qualify for the enhanced mobility component and crucially access to Motability funding, was reduced from 50 metres to 20 metres.

Analysis of previously-released official data by Muscular Dystrophy UK shows that the number of people eligible for Motability funding has fallen in half during the reassessment process for PIP. Of the 254,200 people who were eligible for Motability funding under DLA who were reassessed for PIP by 31 October 2016, 126,300 people have lost access. 51,000 people have already returned their Motability funded cars.

These changes represent a serious threat to independence, social inclusion and quality of life. There are also serious risks to the economy with more Disabled People dropping out of work or education leading to increased poverty and isolation, with the associated health risks. This will inevitably lead to rising costs elsewhere, such as unemployment benefits, social care and the NHS.

What is even more unfair is that Disabled People are taking a bigger ‘hit’ from the cuts than any other group in society. A recent report by the Centre for Welfare Reform found that Disabled People, who make up 8% of the population, are being hit by a massive 29% of all cuts being implemented.ii This cannot be allowed to continue.

We call on all political parties to commit to undertaking, at the earliest opportunity, a cumulative impact assessment of the impact which welfare reform, changes to social care funding and eligibility criteria and the closure of the ILF will have on Disabled People. All further cuts to welfare benefits for Disabled People should be put on hold until this assessment has been completed.

We further call on all political parties to commit to a government-led inquiry into the incidence of suicides amongst Disabled People linked to benefit sanctions and to cuts in services.

We also call on all political parties to commit to guarantee that no Disabled People will lose vital support as a result of the change from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and to reverse the change to the 20 metre rule.

i British Household Survey 2005-08

SPECTRUM 2017 Disability Manifesto out now!

There are more than 13.3 million Disabled People and people with long-term health conditions in the UK – a very sizeable part of the electorate in 2017.

We believe it is essential for Disabled People’s voices to be heard in the debates around the 2017 General Election – not only because they represent a large number of votes but, more importantly, because they are deeply affected by so many of the key issues at the heart of political debate.

On the 25th May 2017, SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living will be launching our Disabled People’s DISABILITY MANIFESTO – a pragmatic and realistic range of proposals which shows how the Government, any Government, could address the unfairness, the indignities and the discrimination that Disabled People have faced because of austerity measures.manifestocover2017


The launch of the DISABILITY Manifesto will be the start of our campaign to bring the needs, and the solutions that Disabled People are proposing, to the eyes and minds of the electorate, and into the minds of politicians and policy makers.

Disabled People Concerned About Snap Election 

So, here we go again! Britain will be going to the polls in just a matter of weeks to elect a new government, after Theresa May shocked the country by announcing a snap general election on June the 8th. The short timescale has concerned many Disabled People’s Organisations such as ourselves and Merton Centre for Independent Living. 

Merton CIL highlight three ways that the short timescale may impact on Disabled People’s ability to exercise her democratic right to vote. 

Firstly, some Disabled People may need support to register to vote. You have until the 22nd May to register to vote in the upcoming general election so if you are not already registered to vote then you can do it online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote 

Secondly, despite much campaigning, some Disabled People still find that their local polling station is not accessible. It is true that you can opt for a postal vote but in 2017, it surely shouldn’t be too much to ask for polling stations to meet the needs of Disabled People.

Finally, there is a very real concern about whether the party manifestos will be available in accessible formats in good time. Different political parties have in the past neglected this issue until being lobbied hard by Disabled People’s Organisations. With much to do in six weeks, what is the bet that the needs of Disabled People in all these different areas will not be seen as a priority by political parties? 

Leaving aside the practical issues, there is also a concern that Disability issues will yet again be overlooked during the election. Sure, we might get a brief mention if the social care crisis gets raised (and we hope it does!) but we share the concern of many that the election will be focused on one issue – Brexit. As Merton CIL rightly state ‘We are concerned that this election might be dominated by Brexit, when so many of our members and local Disabled people have many other very important issues to raise, which are often forgotten about.’

Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of these ‘forgotten’ issues and holding all political parties to account. Let us know what really matters to you. You can Tweet us at @SPECTRUMCIL or visit our Facebook page

Age Equality: Opportunities and challenges in an age of austerity 

This post was written by Gerry Zarb, Business Development and Policy Manager, SPECTRUM CIL

Featured image

With October 1st designated as the annual International Day of Older Persons this is a good time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for age equality in Britain.

As we know the population is ageing. In 2012 the number of people in the UK aged 65 and older passed 10 million for the first time. The latest projections are for 5½ million more older people in 20 years time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050.

Britain is an ageing society but at the same time it remains an essentially ageist society. It would be tempting – but mistaken – to predict that the sheer weight of numbers would be enough to push age equality and the full participation of older people to near the top of the public policy agenda. It is true that the current demographic trends will ensure that ageing increasingly holds the attention of policy makers, institutions and the public. But, the attention this brings will certainly not always be welcome. Far from celebrating the collective experience, wisdom and knowledge that older people could contribute to society the onward march of a greying population is more often seen as a source of anxiety.

Ageism is one element of this anxiety – people simply don’t want to think about the reality of old age. Attempting to develop a mature, realistic public policy debate in the face of this collective denial is a big enough challenge on its own, but some of the anxieties about an ageing population are far less prosaic. Chief amongst these is widespread anxiety about the economic costs of supporting an increasingly ageing population and how these costs can be met from a shrinking population of people who remain economically active.

Clearly, the economic challenge is far from imaginary and does need to be addressed in hard cash terms. But, it can equally be seen as an opportunity to tackle other, equally pressing, problems on the age policy ‘to do’ list. In particular, it offers a golden opportunity to breakdown workplace barriers faced by older people.

Similarly, while politicians have mostly convinced themselves that spreading the costs of supporting an ageing population across the generations will ignite some kind of civil war, it is possible to take a braver and more positive approach to the issue. Rather than simply accepting the ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ mentality as an iron law of relations between the generations, the funding debate could be transformed into an opportunity for building the kind of consensus around collective and shared responsibilities that characterised the founding of the welfare state. This challenge would undoubtedly be significant, but so would the rewards – not only in terms of building positive relations between the generations but also in terms of reinvigorating public welfare itself.

More immediately, the economic anxiety about an ageing Britain needs to countered head on, as decisions taken now on the issue of costs and resources will fundamentally shape the prospects for inclusion and equality for older people for at least the next generation. One of the key policy challenges will be to transform the debate from one focused exclusively on costs to one that also takes account of spending on older people as a positive form of investment and, alongside the costs of maintaining their exclusion.

The development of rigorous and persuasive policy positions on investing in older people also needs to encompass the broader social and economic benefits that could flow from this, and particularly how this could contribute to tackling other major issues on the public policy agenda such as sustainability, building communities and good relations and restoring civic participation.

The current generation of older people has much to offer to promoting sustainability and conservation since many will have direct experience of previous eras of austerity and much practical knowledge – born out of necessity – to living in more sustainable ways by maximising the use of scarce resources. Apart from the direct practical benefits this could bring, there is also untapped potential for building common cause with younger generations who tend to place a much higher value on sustainability than the throw-away society of their parent’s generation.

There is also untapped potential in terms of older people’s role in rebuilding a sense of community and restoring civic participation. If harnessed to emerging social and technological trends such as digital communications there is significant potential for older people to take a leading role in encouraging change in the ways that communities interact and work together to develop solutions to their individual and collective needs.

These are just a few of the many opportunities for promoting the positive contribution older people could make in a more inclusive ageing society. But, in order to maximise such opportunities there remain many barriers and challenges to overcome.

In order for older people to be fully engaged the right kinds of supportive resources need to be in place – and accessible to all – so that they can maximise their participation and independence. This not only means achieving equitable and efficient reform of care and support, but also successfully challenging barriers to adequate health care, and the ageist values and assumptions that underpin them. It will also be important to ensure that some groups of older people – such as people with dementia – do not get left behind. The values of maximising independence, choice and inclusion – within everyone’s own capacity – must be applied equally to all.

The goal of full inclusion cannot be reached without substantial progress on removing the material barriers faced by many older people – particularly barriers to employment, and poverty.

This will require the commitment and shared action of different national and local government departments and, most important of all, community organisations and older people themselves.

The ultimate goal is in fact fairly unremarkable. It is essentially about older people accessing the freedoms and life opportunities they should expect as British citizens – nothing more and nothing less. However, while it is already a reality for some, for many others this deceptively simple aspiration is still a too much of a distant dream.

Tackling Hate Crime Together

The latest figures released from the Home Office in October 2014 show that there were just under 2000 Disability hate crimes in England and Wales in 2013/14, an increase of 8%. It is not clear what is the cause of the increase. It may be that police are identifying and recording Disability hate crime more accurately. It could also be due to Disabled People being more aware that they should report these types of offences to the police. Some argue that the portrayal of Disabled People as ‘benefits scroungers’ in the media has adversely affected society’s perception of Disabled People.

Whatever the cause, it was an apt time for SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living and Hampshire County Council to co-host an event on hate crime. The event brought together a wide range of stakeholders interested in tackling hate crime. The event was particularly positive as people affected by all types of hate crime (race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, transgender, traveller community) participated. This meant there was a wide range of experiences and viewpoints in which to draw upon.

In addition to the affected communities themselves, representatives from other agencies such as the police, local authority, housing associations and Crown Prosecution Service were also present to give their views on tackling hate crime.

Some of the common themes from the event were the importance of education particularly for young people to understand the negative effects of name calling, intimidation on people who are from a ‘minority’ group. Communities need to know how they report hate crime and how it will be investigated. People need to have confidence that the issue will be taken seriously and other stakeholder agencies need to know how to proceed if hate crimes are reported to them.

In summary, the event was a useful opportunity for everyone to think about how we need to all work in partnership to tackle hate crime and how that will improve all our communities for the better.

SPECTRUM will be producing a full report on the day shortly, which will be available on the website.