What is Disability?

I could give you my quick answer, but you’d probably find it differs from a lot of other peoples. The truth of the matter is that the definition of disability varies a lot depending on perspective. So in answering that question I think it’s important to look at the different perspectives people have had. So in this post I’m going to provide a little bit of the last 50 years of history and explain the major ways we’ve looked at disability in the UK especially. At the end I’ll share the definitions of disability I currently use, and you can make your minds up for yourself.

Abstract image of a wheelchair user, by Dadu Shin

In the UK in the 1970’s there arose a challenge to the dominant idea that disability was something wrong with an individual, something to be left to medical professionals. In that time (and still in modern day society) there was a pervasive idea that there is a “normal” state of structure and functioning which the human body & mind should exist within. Society is then structured to serve people who have bodies and minds that fit that mould. We’ll talk about the issues with the idea of normality and the quest for normalisation in a later post. Any long term bodily and/or mental functioning or structure that is seen to sit outside of this mould is viewed as abnormal and in need of an intervention (medical or moral) to attempt to either make the individual “normal”, or as close to it as possible. Instead of saying “any long term bodily and/or mental functioning or structure that is seen to sit outside of whatever is being deemed as normal by those in power”, we instead refer to impairments. Those who couldn’t be sufficiently medically normalised to independently manage daily living activities using the tools provided by the society they inhabited were to be segregated into residential facilities, frequently denied education, normally expected to work for next to no pay (if any), or abandoned to the whims of charity – be it philanthropic in nature or familial. These people were disabled.

It was at this time a group of disabled people in the UK, calling themselves the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, UPIAS, put forward that instead of disability being an individual medical tragedy, it should be seen as:

“…the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities.”

“What is a Disability? quoted from “Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation. Fundamental Principles of Disability, London, 1976”

This was a huge change to the way disabled people saw their relation to the world they inhabited. No longer was being seen as medically abnormal the sole reason people were disabled, instead it was the way these people were treated that led to their oppression and marginalisation. This isn’t, and has never been, to say that someone living with an impairment such as chronic pain or paralysis doesn’t experience functional differences to someone who doesn’t, it is instead to say that the reason they are oppressed and marginalised is because society takes no account of them – or the rest of the estimated 20-25% of its members with impairments.

In the 1980’s, building on UPIAS’s work, Mike Oliver, in an attempt to explain the differences in approach to his social work students, wrote about two key ways of looking at disability: the individual tragedy approach, or the social approach. I’m going to outline the difference between the two below:

Individual Tragedy Model

  • The traditional approach to disablement;
  • This places the locus (the seat, the location) of disablement firmly within an individual;
  • Impairments and disability are seen as one and the same, and the words are used interchangeably;
  • Becoming disabled is viewed as a chance twist of fate, an isolated indecent that tragically strikes an individual;
  • It is the individuals job to adapt as best they can to fit in with “normal” people if they want to overcome their personal limitations;
  • It heavily relies on the medicalisation of disabled people.

Social Model

  • This builds on the UPIAS definition;
  • It places the locus of disablement outside of the individual and into society;
  • Impairments are not denied, rather seen as being connected to, but not the cause of, the process of disablement;
  • People with impairments become disabled because their society fails to adequately provide for the needs of people with impairments, which results in marginalisation. Therefore disability is the marginalisation & oppression that is faced by people with impairments;
  • Society has to adapt to meet the needs of disabled people to end this marginalisation.

The social model became a powerful organising tool and led to the British disabled people’s movement making some big steps forward. Coming together to argue that they didn’t want pity, they wanted access to the same rights as non-disabled people (Such as access to public transport and public spaces). They also challenged the culture of charity, coming together under the slogan of “Rights not Charity”. There were famous protests against telethons depicting disabled people as “charity cases”, where we were encouraged to “Piss on Pity”.

Under increasing pressure the government decided to act, and said it would adopt the social model into its working. In a move that won’t shock anyone, it did not do that; it instead broke it down. The government removed the materialist critiques and calls for social, cultural and economic change, and kept the parts embracing the idea that some few physical changes were all that was required to normalise disabled people. This warped it away from its origins. It left disabled people, who it is important to say are rarely if ever formally educated in these theories, and are increasingly isolated from each other making community learning a challenge, dissatisfied with what they were being told was that social model. This is why you hear common critiques of the social model such as “It doesn’t cover pain & fatigue!”, where of course it did. It just didn’t ever consider them (as impairments) to be the locus of disablement. It called for society to adapt to be inclusive of people with impairments, it was never a medical tool designed to normalise bodies. All that most experienced was a new version of the individual tragedy model, except this time instead of requiring medical interventions to normalise one’s body, it was often one size fits no-one physical adaptations that were supposed to normalise disabled people. The call from disabled people asking society to accommodate them had been responded to with some token gestures, such as the DDA which lead to few nominal material improvements, as 25 years later we still see disabled people finding public transport & public spaces inaccessible. Worse still, disabled people’s attempts to externalise the locus of disability were twisted back, this time blaming the individual for not trying hard enough because now they had the adaptations (Ha!) that they asked for.

Lots of new models of disability, often based on either a misunderstanding of the social model’s radical intent, or as an attempt to mesh rights-based ideas of disabled people’s equality within a capitalist framework. The neo-liberal Bio-Psycho-Social Model might be one of the most notorious examples, exemplifying the false notion that society is by and large accessible so most disabled people are able to be either normalised or come close to normalisation, implying that those who find society inaccessible are either lazy, malingerers, liars, or individual tragedies.

Picture of various UK headlines demonising disabled people as workshy scroungers

Both I, and an ever increasing number of disabled people think it’s important to go back to the radical materialist roots of the social theory when considering the nature of disablement. A lot of critique of the social model is criticism of what it was corrupted into. We all know that the state corrupting the social model for its own ends doesn’t mean that the initial theory was wrong; I would argue that it is more a sign that the capitalist state is systemically reproducing disablism and repressing criticism.

With that in mind I want to remind people of the radical nature of the social model of disability. That it goes beyond simple physical barrier removal and is a tool for looking not simply at the systems of our own disablist oppression, but at those of other intersecting marginalised groups.

‘Radical’ Social Model

  • This builds on the UPIAS work;
  • The locus of disablement is seen as being based in our society which is governed by the capitalist state, and other hierarchical structures such as “normality” (which are both co-opted by capitalism and exist beyond it);
  • Focuses on liberation instead of rights-based campaigning, as rights under capitalism are tokenistic at best (as they will never be allowed to exist if they really challenge the status quo, which includes systemic disablism), and illusory at worst;
  • The systemic oppression of, and reproduction of oppression towards, disabled people is a part of the continual social reproduction of the capitalist state, where the disabled underclass serves as both a threat and a scapegoat to non-disabled workers.

So when it comes to the question, what is disability? Well, it depends which views you subscribe to. I currently work from the radical social model outlined above, and this blog will take that perspective until I find something that I believe works as a better tool to help understand our place in the world. Now, as promised at the start, here are the definitions I’m currently working from, which I’m sure will evolve over time.


Impairment is the differences of appearance, structure or functioning of the body, mind or senses that society currently deems to be abnormal.

Disability is the marginalisation & oppression people with impairment experience as a result of not being taken into account by society.

Disablism is the systemic practice of society not taking into account people with impairments, and viewing them negatively; In large part because of the creation of a false notion of normality which people with impairments are pressured to conform to.

Some Further Reading


One thought on “What is Disability?

  1. Carol Thomas’s work provides a helpful critique of some of Mike Oliver’s writings (I should know; I did an essay on impairment & disablement when I studied under the Disability Studies department at Leeds Uni!)


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