I wrote this post as a way of bringing my thoughts together around recent debates on the social model, while slowly drafting a thesis chapter. It is written as a provocation piece and for that reason I did not feel it’s necessary to add references.
Length: 1,164 words.
Both in discussions outside of academia as well as in academic circles, a distinction between two models of disability is often made: there is the medical/individual model (that considers disablism to arise from impairment), and the social model (that, it is said, considers ‘the social’ sphere as the cause of disablement). Each of these models encompasses various variations and approaches. A third model, it may be suggested, is the bio-psycho-social model – a framework used by the state and international institutions to allegedly combine the previous two models; however, it is often also used interchangeably with the social model.
Over the past half a century, the social model (which was developed through the collective praxis of disabled activists) has become increasingly more well-known in the UK, to the extent that its language has been adopted by various institutions and policies. This could be seen as a sign of progress against the disabling nature of society, and in some respects it is. However, while institutions and policies claim that they use a ‘social approach’, this is often meant as a way of refusing to acknowledge the material reality of the experiences of disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent people. So, the ‘social’ becomes everything and anything, and as such any form of ‘support’ that the state, the care industry and others can prove that they provide, is packaged as being a step towards ‘removing barriers’; and that is their sole aim (which itself is a political matter). Thus, this state and institution-based interpretation of ‘the social’ is a very particular one in which only piecemeal change (to improve an individual’s living conditions if they do the work of proving that they ‘need’ it) is deemed possible. ‘The social’/the environment is taken to be the cause of disablism, rather than the social relations and material conditions that underpin it. This way, the social and power relations, as well as the frameworks for practice are hidden from sight, and therefore remain intact and always already oppressive. This is one of the reasons for which the social model has been denounced by scholars and others as being limited, and proposals for replacing it are being currently thought through. Another reason is linked to the collective-materialist model’s scarce theorisation of impairment.
I posit that the denouncing of the social model might stem from the fact that the ‘social’ has been trivialised (as seen above). The term, coined initially by activists and scholars seeking a radical social transformation of society, is admittedly slippery and always at risk of appropriation and re-interpretation, especially if it is used as an umbrella term within a medical-social dualism. I suggest that a better way of categorising approaches to disability is by focusing on their respective aims – and in particular, political aims and strategies for achieving them. Some approaches, for instance, present themselves as social, but their aims and strategies for change are individual which means that their political tendency may be towards liberalism and reformism. This is why I emphasise the term ‘collective’ in the ‘collective-materialist’ term I use to refer to the work of Oliver et al.
So, in assessing approaches to disability, it is useful to ask the questions: what does this approach stand for? What are its aims and how useful is it to the collective? If its conceptual tools exclude particular groups, how can it be adapted in a way that is not tokenistic? In which circles are its concepts being used, and for what purpose? What are its points of reference? Who is seeking to ignore its tenets and upholders, and why? How does it conceptualise solidarity? What is its theory of oppression? What is its analysis of institutions? How does it conceptualise and mobilise for change? How can it be adapted to current contexts for it to be relevant to the material conditions of people subjected to disablement? To what extent can the demands articulated through it, result in a qualitative and radical transformation of the way people relate to one another (as this will have implications in the institutions we build and practices we reproduce)? And of course, what elements of the other approaches could be integrated within it and how?
The collective-materialist approach within the social model (proposed by Oliver, Abberley, Sutherland and others) is still as relevant today as when it was first articulated – that is because we still live in a world where social relations are being mediated by capitalism, all forms of oppressions, and their inherently disabling tenets – one being that of ‘productivity’. Of course, the capitalist exploitation and disabling oppression manifest today differently compared to the late 20th Century. As such, it is urgent and necessary for activists and scholars to come together to discuss and update the collective-materialist approach’s strategies, without altering its collective principles, so that we can make sense of the current social relations and conditions of living through neoliberal, financial capitalism. Simply adopting the medical-social distinction and pushing the social model (and with it, the collective-materialist approach) aside in favour of a new model would be premature and unnecessary.
The posthuman approach/model offers intriguing ethical questions and challenges to the humanism of all other models, by problematising and seeking to overcome hierarchical dualisms between nature/culture, human/non-human, human/nature, mind/body, the material/the discursive; it also brings to the centre of analysis matters related to ecology, human-animal relations, human-technology entanglements, and so on. These developments and theorisations have great analytic value and can meaningfully inform the collective-materialist approach. For instance, with the posthuman concept of ‘bodyminds’ we can emphasise that the mind-body separation (and with it, the separation between mental health and physical impairment by the state, employers, and others) is unnecessary and has had, over history, harmful effects, sustaining disablement oppression. This term is especially helpful in discussions in relation to chronic illness, mental distress, and neurodivergence (but not only) and can be used to talk about the fluctuating nature of bodyminds.
However, I would caution against using the posthuman approach to signal the end or irrelevance of the collective-materialist model. Instead, the best way we can advance the struggle to abolish disablement is by upholding the political aims and analysis of disablist oppression and capitalism already articulated through the collective-materialist approach. Conversations are needed between adherents of the collective-materialist model and those who are building their work upon the posthuman orientation. The posthuman turn itself can be used for different purposes and aims, and as such adherents’ interpretation of it depends upon the political ideology they ascribe to. This is why it is important for disability activists and scholars to be aware (and as much as possible, upfront) about their politics, and to be mindful of the implications of the approach(es) they engage with.