Ontologies of Power: 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, and the domination of able-bodied ‘experts’ over disabled people in them; this self-organised movement of disabled people turned to new models of community inclusion and self-directed living. Recent scholarship (Hunt: 2019) identifies two competing tendencies in the DPM; each positing a distinct ontology of power in its formulation of disability as a social category. The first, liberationist, tendency was committed to ontological individualism; grounding oppression in the beliefs and actions of non-disabled people – metastasised by markets, state institutions, and judiciaries. Functional difference is posited a natural and neutral aspect of human existence, whose benign status is obscured by majoritarian intolerance. The second, emancipationist trend (spearheaded by Judy and Paul Hunt, Liz and Vic Finkelstein, and Dick Leaman), attempted to organise a collectivist response based on grassroots power to secure disabled people’s integration 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, focussing on their social-ontological account of disablement as an operation of economic and institutional power. I locate the core of emancipatonist theory in three ‘planks’ of its social analysis:
-an analysis of disability as ‘a capitalist by-product’, anchored by socially-necessary labour time and the formal subsumption of social reproduction – expressed as a ‘paradox’ of abjection distinguishing disabled people from the social mainstream (UPIAS: 2022 [1981]);
-the identification of 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 (Davis: 1993a; 1993b; Leaman: 2022 [1990]);
-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 readings that this tendency bifurcated functional difference into natural ‘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 emancipationists conceptualised disablement as a fractious and unsettled phenomenon of capitalism’s unfolding. For emancipationists, forms of bodily/mental difference inferring disablement are produced and defined by struggles at the point of production and their outcomes (imperialism, poverty, distributions of leverage); while those whose difference 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.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 18 Apr 2024
EventCentral European University: Annual Doctoral Conference - Central European University, Vienna, Austria
Duration: 17 Apr 202419 Apr 2024


ConferenceCentral European University: Annual Doctoral Conference
Abbreviated titleCEU-ADC
OtherThe Annual Doctoral Conference provides a professional, supportive, and international environment for PhD students and early career researchers in various fields of the humanities and social sciences to discuss their works in progress, establish formal or informal networks, and initiate future collaborative research. The aim is to share our understanding of power through different disciplinary perspectives and methodologies by discussing research and practice in terms of institutional, colonial, racialized, gendered, economic, behavioural, or biopolitical power, amongst others.
Internet address


  • disability
  • Social Ontology
  • Social Movements
  • Capitalism
  • Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation


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