chapter  8
17 Pages

Disability and oppression: changing theories and practices

ByGEOFFREY MERCER

The theory and practice of disability became increasingly contested through the last quarter of the twentieth century. The public, professional and policy perception was that it constituted a ‘personal tragedy’, with disabled people the unfortunate victims of their impairment, directed to a lifetime of ‘care’ and dependency. However, this individual perspective attracted growing criticism from emerging organisations of disabled people and disability activists. These critics highlighted the wide-ranging discrimination experienced by disabled people and developed a theoretical analysis in which disability is defined as a form of social exclusion and oppression. Political campaigns called for a ‘rights not charity’ approach. This scenario seems tailor-made for the application of anti-oppressive

social work. And yet it has been disabled people and their allies who have taken the initiative in raising disability issues – often in the face of concerted opposition or general indifference from policy makers, academics and service providers. This chapter will address this apparent contradiction. It will: first, outline the development of a ‘social model’ to replace the individual approach to disability; second, explore existing social service provision for disabled clients; and third, examine attempts by disabled people and organisations controlled by them to develop radical new initiatives to promote the inclusion of disabled people, with particular reference to ‘independent living’.

In modern times, the dominant approach to disability has equated it with long-term sickness and incapacity (World Health Organisation, 1980). This diagnostic focus on individual defects and limitations associated with disabled bodies and minds is located in medical knowledge, which in turn provides the rationale for medical and allied interventions. The aim has been cure, rehabilitation and care. In health and social policy terms this dictates that disabled people must accept their dependence on others, whether

professional experts or informal family carers. More widely, it rationalises the limited participation if not exclusion of the ‘person with a disability’ from everyday social life. For critics, this ‘personal tragedy’, or individual and in modern times

heavily medicalised approach, has dominated policy thinking and practice with respect to disability (Oliver, 1990). In response, disabled people have campaigned against the injustice of their second-class status in contemporary society with gathering intensity. They have also contested the orthodox view that impairment causes an individual’s removal from, or marginalisation in, themainstream of society. In Britain, a key contribution to these early debates was provided by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). Its Fundamental Principles of Disability manifesto differentiated ‘impairment’ from ‘disability’ in a novel way: