Difference as a Site of Struggle: the Production of Disablement and Emancipatory Disability Politics in Britain

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Britain’s Disabled People’s Movement (DPM) arose from the legitimacy crisis of a mass, professional-led, wave of disability activism which dominated social policy discussions between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Frustrated by these campaigns’ failures, this self-organised movement of disabled people turned its attention to developing new models of community inclusion and self-directed living. While commonly understood as having a radical and a reformist wing, recent scholarship (Hunt: 2019) has identified two competing tendencies within the DPM; each positing a distinct ontology of difference in its formulation of disability as a social category. The first, liberationist tendency, was committed to ontological individualism; with the problems of disability oppression grounded in the beliefs and actions of disabled and non-disabled people – regulated and metastasised by markets, state institutions, and judiciaries. In this account, functional difference is a natural and neutral (if not positive) facet of human existence, whose fundamentally benign status is obscured by majoritarian intolerance. The second, emancipationist trend (spearheaded by Marxist activists Judy and Paul Hunt, Liz and Vic Finkelstein, and Dick Leaman), attempted to organise a collectivist response based on rank-and-file power amongst disabled people, leading (they hoped) to the integration of disabled people into the working class movement, and the latter’s democratisation through anti-statist and anti-paternalist commitments.

This paper outlines the emancipatory trend’s critiques of capitalism and of mainstream, individualist disability politics, with a particular focus on their social-ontological account of disablement as a constructed and contested social differentiation. I locate the practical ingenuity and theoretical salience of the emancipatory trend in three ‘planks’ of its analysis of disability. These are, respectively: an analysis of disability as ‘a capitalist by-product’, anchored by socially-necessary labour time and the formal subsumption of social reproduction, and expressed as a ‘paradox’ of abjection distinguishing disabled people from the majority of workers (Two UPIAS Members: 2022 [1981]); the identification of both the ‘disability industry’ (the state/para-state’s management of disablement) and self-organised disabled people as collective agents capable of reifying, transforming, or sublating this social position through conscious and unconscious struggle (Davis: 1993a; 1993b; Leaman: 2022 [1990]); and a critique of juridical approaches to equality, grounded in objections to the false equivalence between subject-positions presumed by legal frameworks (Finkelstein: 2000; 2008).

Against traditional readings that this tendency simply bifurcated the category of difference into natural and neutral ‘impairments’ of the body or mind, and socially constructed ‘disablement’ as an arbitrary form of exclusion and domination (c.f. Shakespeare & Watson: 2001; Goodly, Szarota & Wolowicz: 2020), I argue that the emancipationist framework conceptualises the difference of disability as a constantly fractious and unsettled phenomenon of capitalism’s unfolding. For emancipationists, forms of bodily/mental difference which infer disablement are directly produced and defined by struggles at the point of production and their outcomes (imperialism, class stratification, and the shifting valuation of labour-power); while those whose difference and oppression is already constructed are emmeshed in institutional and reproductive struggles whose divergence from, or convergence with, other liberation projects depends on the dynamic interaction of diverse social phenomena and social movement strategy.

Works Cited

Davis, Ken (1993a) ‘The crafting of good clients’ in Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments (eds. Swain et al) London: Sage Publishing (pp. 197-200)

- (1993b) ‘On the movement’ in Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments (eds. Swain et al) London: Sage Publishing (pp. 285-291)

- (2022 [1984]) ‘The politics of independent living – keeping the movement radical’ in UPIAS Members’ Pack Digital Reproduction by the Disabled People's Archive (2022)

Finkelstein, Vic (2000) ‘What to do?’ Coalition (October 2000) (pp. 16-22)

- (2008) The Social Model of Disability and the Disability Movement in Britain Manchester, GMCDP.

Goodley, Dan; Szarota, Magda & Wolowicz, Agnieszka (2020) ‘Possible and disability’ in The Palgrave Encyclopaedia of the Possible (ed. Glaeveanu) (pp. 1-8)

Hunt, Judy (2019) No Limits: The Disabled People’s Movement – A Radical History Manchester, TBR Imprint. Leaman, Dick (2022 [1990]) ‘The commodity of care’ Coalition (September 1990) (pp. 10-14) Digital Reproduction by the Disabled People's Archive (2022)

Shakespeare, Tom & Watson, Nick (2001) ‘Making the difference: disability, politics, and recognition’ in Handbook of Disability Studies (ed. Albrecht, Seelman & Bury) Thousand Oaks, Sage (pp.548-571)

Two Members of UPIAS and Big Flame (2022 [1981]) ‘Disability – a capitalist by-product’ Big Flame (September 1981) (pp. 8-9) Digital Reproduction by the Disabled People's Archive (2022)
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 25 May 2024
EventCritical Emancipations: The Production of Difference - KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
Duration: 23 May 202425 May 2024


ConferenceCritical Emancipations: The Production of Difference


  • Disability
  • Difference
  • Political Philosophy
  • Social Movements
  • Social Ontology


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