Mike Oliver: a pioneer for disability rights

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Mike Oliver. Pic: YouTube/The AM Show

Mike Oliver, who died last month, was a key figure in the British disability rights movement. He pioneered the development of what became known as the social model of disability.

His many books, including The Politics of Disablement (1990), helped lead to the foundation of Disability Studies as an academic discipline — in which he became the first professor in Britain. Throughout his life, Oliver argued that the fight against disability discrimination was also about wider social change.

After breaking his neck at the age of 17 in a diving accident, Oliver’s prospects looked bleak. By chance he got a job in a children’s institution, which in turn led to him studying sociology and social anthropology at the University of Kent in the early 1970s.

In one of his last interviews he recalled how every day he had to be carried in his wheelchair up and down the stairs of an inaccessible campus by fellow students.

His life was transformed by The Fundamental Principles of Disability, a booklet published in 1976 by an obscure group of fellow wheelchair users called the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). Its activists argued that disabled people were oppressed by society.

Oliver was struck by their landmark distinction between impairment and disability, in which the former was defined “as lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people [who have impairments].”

Oliver developed the UPIAS principles with the exiled anti-apartheid activist Vic Finkelstein during the course of the 1980s.

As he put it, “if disability is defined as social oppression, then disabled people will be seen as collective victims of an uncaring or unknowing society rather than as individual victims of circumstances. Such a view will be translated into social policies geared towards alleviating oppression rather than compensating individuals.”

The social model had a huge impact on the disability movement in Britain as it grew under the Tory governments of the 1908s and 1990s. The movement reached a peak then split in response to the development of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, which Oliver and his allies dismissed as ineffective.

He later described this period as marking a shift from “disability activism” to “disability corporatism”, which he saw as largely due to the development of New Labour under Tony Blair.

As the social model became more widely accepted, so its radical content was increasingly diluted. In 2012 Oliver described how over three decades it had been “incorporated into the agendas and practices of governments, welfare agencies, ‘quangos’, charities and a variety of other organisations worldwide…without any…substantial change to their practices.”

As the social model was increasingly criticised for its perceived defects in a range of areas, so his discipline of Disability Studies became dominated by fragmented and pessimistic variants of postmodernism.

If Oliver’s political views were influenced as much by the ideas of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault as they were by Marx, he nevertheless stayed faithful to them as many fellow activists and academics moved rightward.

Most of his later years were dedicated to tenaciously defending the social model against its critics. This was his single greatest achievement: to develop an understanding of disability which equipped a generation of activists with a vital tool to fight against discrimination and for genuine social change — an understanding which will continue to inspire their successors.