A Fragile Alliance: Disability Politics and Institutions as (pseudo-)Social Movements in Post-War Britain

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Histories of disability activism in Britain have converged around an understanding of the 1960/70s income campaigns as a paradigm shift in disability politics: constructing disablement as a matter for both state policy and popular mobilisation, and engendering self-organised groups by their disintegration. While insightful, this essay argues that view is overstated. I argue that reforming institutional charities operating at the same time – the Leonard Cheshire Foundation for the Sick (Cheshire Foundation) and the Spastics Society – constituted social movement-like organisations which relied on mobilising disabled people’s talents and aspirations, while in practice dominating them in institutional settings. This essay traces the contradictions inherent in this approach to philanthropy and organisational growth under the specific conditions of post-war Britain, and the struggles between disabled residents and charity officials over the extent of disabled people’s autonomy within both charities. These struggles produced leaders in the emerging Disabled People’s Movement, alongside the impetus for much of its theoretical and strategic innovation. They are, I argue, as relevant to accounts of social movement re-composition as the changing fortunes of contemporaneous incomes campaigns; and incentivise us to adopt anti-reductionist, dialectical, and multi-causal historiographical methods when theorising disablement, resistance, and social transformation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRepenser l’institution et la désinstitutionnalisation à partir du handicap
Subtitle of host publicationActes de la Conférence Alter 2022
EditorsIsabelle Hachez, Nicolas Marquis
Place of PublicationBruxelles
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9782802802877
Publication statusPublished - 25 Mar 2024


  • Disability history
  • Social Movements
  • social definition of disability
  • segregation
  • Charity


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