Citizenship as Critique and the Critique of Citizenship: the Disabled People’s Movement and the Civil Rights Strategy

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


The British Disabled People’s Movement’s (DPM’s) attempt to define disability as a social relationship of exclusion stands in an ambiguous relationship to discourses of citizenship. While citizenship provides a framework within which to identify the areas of civic life from which disabled people are excluded, alongside a moral argument for social inclusion: it offers little room for critiques of either practices of wage labour or value production which disabled activists claim necessitates their segregation (UPIAS 1975: Clause 4; Davis & Davis 2019: pp.105-7; Oliver 1990: 25-42).

My presentation will investigate the most comprehensive attempt to think through this tension and analyse the place of citizenship claims in the liberation movement of disabled people: that presented by Mike Oliver in the 1990s (Oliver 1990; 1996; Campbell and Oliver 1996). Rooted in his analysis of the DPM as a counter-hegemonic ‘new social movement’, Oliver argues that appeals to citizenship simultaneously provide an ideological alternative to conceptions of disability as an individual trait, an immanent critique of the welfare models which produce disability, and a strategic orientation for the DPM in its dealings with the state and civil society. Despite his own deep scepticism as to whether citizenship rights were possible for disabled people under capitalism, Oliver holds that these factors constitute a compelling tactical case for the adoption of demands for citizenship on the part of the DPM.

I argue that Oliver’s conclusions became the de facto position of the DPM in its attempt to secure comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Legislation and legal reforms of community care in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This orientation raised immediate and insurmountable problems of operationalisation: necessitating the splitting of the DPM into separate organisational structures concerned with different types of ‘right’; the entrance of these organisations into uneasy alliances with the state and market actors, and redirecting activists’ energy away from local struggles and towards parliamentary lobbying. I outline these difficulties through contemporary critiques of the citizenship strategy, which associate this process with the imminent collapse of the DPM (Finkelstein 1996; 2007; Barnes & Oliver 2006).

Following these accounts, I raise the concern that universal moral frameworks for enacting strategy tend towards both an individualisation of social problems and a largely functionalist conceptualisation of institutions that produce exclusionary practices and their relationship to civil society. Thus, these institutions are better able to co-opt, obstruct, or seize control over framing citizenship projects than the DPM was, without fundamentally changing their behaviour or operations. I conclude that two major problems of Oliver’s approach are its inability to provide a rich institutional critique of the civic bodies charged with implementing citizenship rights, and its reliance on a symbolic separation of the forms of disabled people’s exclusion from their determinate cause in the mode of production.

Barnes. C & Oliver. M (2006) ‘Disability politics and the disability movement in Britain: where did it all go wrong?’

Campbell. J & Oliver. M (1996) Disability Politics - Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future Routledge, London

Davis. M & Davis. K (2019) To and From Grove Rd TBR, Manchester

Finkelstein. V (1996) ‘Outside “inside-out”’ Coalition (April 1996) pp/ 30-36
‘The ‘social model of disability and the disability movement’ -

Oliver. M (1990) The Politics of Disablement Macmillan, London
- (1996) Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice Routeledge, London

Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) (1975) ‘Aims and Policies’ UPIAS Pamphlet, London
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2020
EventDisability and Political Theory: From Status and Distributive Justice to Citizenship - Manchester Centre for Political Theory, Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 8 Sept 202011 Sept 2020


ConferenceDisability and Political Theory: From Status and Distributive Justice to Citizenship
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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