Anchoring Disablement: Social Definitions and Social Ontology in Britain’s Disabled People’s Movement

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


The social definition (or model) of disability is widely accepted as the most significant theoretical contribution of the Disabled People’s Movement (DPM) in Britain to the socio-ontological theorisation of disability. Both critics and supporters of its core claim that disability is a form of oppression imposed on top of impairment by forms of social organisation (UPIAS: 1976) have, however, read it as a narrow claim about the theoretical grounding of the social phenomenon ‘disability’: particularly whether this grounding is exclusively exogenous to the individuals occupying the social position of ‘disabled’ (ie, whether it is exhaustively constituted through social organisation). Rejections of the DPM’s theoretical contribution have thus tended towards three types of justification: contrary claims that grounding or causative mechanisms of disability can be found endogenously within the disabled person (Shakespeare & Watson: 2001; Heartfield: 2017); claims that the definition requires some third term, representing a non-social mechanism with social-causative effects (Thomas: 1999; Reeve: 2012; Levitt: 2017); and total rejections of any binary definitions of social phenomenon in favour of monistic analyses of materialised discourses (Tremain: 2001; Withers: 2012).

While correctly identifying a rejection of (causative) methodological individualism which has united the DPM around the language of the social definition, my paper argues that this reading fundamentally reifies both the theoretical bases of the social definition and social movement practice. Despite all activist-theorists subscribing to the social definition defending the grounding distinction between disability and impairment; the nature of the DPM as a de-centralised, democratic, and politically and socially heterogenous movement has entailed a lack of uniformity on both content of any grounding principle (what we say about society when we say it is disabling) and, more pressingly, what in contemporary societies anchor claims of social oppression (the functional role ‘disablement’ plays in social coherence, its relation to formal and informal social institutions, its place in the reproduction of social wholes or processes of morphogenesis, etc).

Divergences on questions of grounding and anchoring are, I argue, functions of socio-political and ontological commitments by differentially situated activist-theorists (responding to separate opportunity structures, institutional incentives and pressures, and conceptions of a liberatory project). Recently (Hunt: 2019), these divergences been described by a distinction between liberationist (focussed on increasing the freedom of disabled individuals in all spheres of their life) and emancipationist (seeking collective control over the ‘disability industry’ (Davis: 1993)) projects. Additionally, however, I believe a separate distinction exists over whether methodological individualism applies as an ontological (rather than causative) explanation for disablement. Using this ontological distinction, I show that the concrete political projects of different sections of the DPM deploy not only differentiated grounding claims, but fundamentally distinct accounts of the social world’s coherence and the emergence of novel social phenomena.

Works Cited
Davis, K (1993) ‘The crafting of good clients’ in Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments (eds. Swain, Finkelstein, French, Oliver) London: Sage Publications (pp. 197-200)
Heartfield, J (2017) The Equal Opportunities Revolution London: Repeater Books
Hunt, J (2019) No Limits – The Disabled Peoples Movement: A Radical History Manchester: TBR Imprint
Levitt, J.M (2017) ‘Exploring how the social model of disability can be reinvigorated: in response to Mike Oliver’ Disability and Society (32:4) (pp. 589-594)
Reeve, D (2012) 'Psycho-emotional disablism in the lives of people experiencing mental distress', in Distress or Disability? Proceedings of a symposium held at Lancaster University (eds. Anderson, Sapey and Spandler) Lancaster: Lancaster University Centre for Disability Research (pp. 24-29)
Shakespeare, T & Watson, N (2001) ‘The social model of disability: an outdated ideology’ in Exploring Theories and Expanding Methodologies: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go (Vol: 2) (eds. Barnatt and Altman) London: Emerald Publishing (pp. 9-28)
Thomas, C (1999) Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Tremain, S (2001) ‘On the government of disability’ Social Theory and Practice (27:4) (pp. 617-636)
Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) (1976) Fundamental Principles of Disability London: UPIAS Pamphlet
Withers, AJ (2012) Disability Politics and Theory Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jul 2022
EventSocial Ontology and Social Movements - University of Athens, Athens, Greece
Duration: 25 Jul 202226 Jul 2022


ConferenceSocial Ontology and Social Movements


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