“Social model of disability”: What’s that about?
In a week when the government is claiming credit for getting hundreds of disabled people a day into employment and global corporation Maximus is about to take over running the Work Capability Assessment from discredited ATOS, why should the TUC bother with publishing a guide explaining the difference between the social and medical “models of disability”: isn’t this just an ideological question, of interest to academics but not relevant to the lives of Britain’s eleven million disabled people?
If you accept the “social model”, which the UK should because it has signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities which is based on this approach, you will see the problem as the barriers that block disabled people’s inclusion as equal citizens, the same barriers that explain why disabled people are more likely to live in poverty and more likely not to be working.
The government approach is rooted in the model which sees disabled people themselves as a problem to be fixed: the individual disabled person is either a hero for overcoming their own deficiency (like a paralympic champion), or else a “burden” on society (in popular and tabloid language, a benefit scrounger). The medical model reigns everywhere, but if you put a pound in the collecting box of a disability charity, the world stays the same. If you remove the barriers to a disabled person gaining employment (or access to a train or a building), you begin to change it.
Contrary to ministerial rhetoric, millions of disabled people have got even poorer under the government’s benefit “reforms”, people with terminal cancer have had their benefits cut because they’ve been declared fit for work, many with mental health conditions have been sanctioned (lost their income for weeks or months) because the system is unable to make adjustments for their conditions, and the support that did enable 18,000 people with severe impairments to participate in society – the Independent Living Fund – has been shut down and left to the lottery of local authority budgets, already slashed year on year. At the same time as taking away the support, the government blames disabled people for their exclusion. Employer prejudice, stigma, ignorance, lack of transport, lack of access: what barriers? All they have to do to get a job is try a bit harder!
Changing the understanding of disability is vital to changing the world in which disabled people live. Trade unions support campaigns led by disabled people themselves to challenge each and every government attack.
Trade union disabled members – there are millions of disabled people who do have jobs – have told the TUC to promote the social model because having the right starting point is vital to challenging popular prejudice and essential to the creation of a level playing field where disabled people, with support, can participate equally with non-disabled people. So the TUC has published guidance so that trade unions can review what they’re doing to turn formal acceptance of the social model into practical effect.
The only people who lose from this approach are those who want to continue treating disabled people as second class citizens. Unions are firmly on the other side.