14  December 2022 online

Ellen Clifford 

Disabled people in the UK have been subjected to brutal, targeted attacks by government since 2010, largely concealed from the public through spin, lies and strategic U-turns. In 2016 the UN found the UK government guilty of grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights, as a result of austerity and welfare reforms. Disabled people suffered disproportionately in the pandemic, and were overlooked in official responses. They had to lobby and threaten legal challenges to have their needs recognised. Mutual aid groups, DPO’s and peer support groups filled the gaps. At least 59% of all Covid-related deaths were those of disabled people, yet mainstream narratives on the pandemic reinforced a sense that their lives were disposable. We now face a severe ‘cost-of-living crisis’ and yet more austerity.

Originally conceived as a tool for collective action – not a comprehensive theory of oppression – the ‘social model of disability’ is more necessary than ever. The social model has been the backbone of the Disabled People’s Movement in Britain for nearly three decades, providing an identity around which disabled people have organised. But a watered-down version of the social model now shapes institutional ideas and policies on disability, including the development of the ‘UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’.

This promotes a human rights approach consistent with a social model accepted by the UK government, Scottish and Welsh administrations, and various regional and local authorities in England. While even critics acknowledge that the social model has played a role in driving forward living standards for disabled people through informing policy, there are serious questions over what has been lost during this process.

Moreover, the social model never fully unified disabled people. It has been divisive and beset by controversy. Not all disabled people identify with the model, with some not identifying as ‘impaired’ and others worrying that it doesn’t speak to the real effects of their impairments. Barnes and Oliver warned against wasting too much energy theorising about something that was designed to be a tool for action. I argue – contra Barnes and Oliver – that we need a reinvigoration of the social model of disability. I propose a return to the original understanding of the social model proposed by Oliver – a counter to the individual model, underpinned by medicalisation – and for the development of a ‘social model of impairment’.



Ellen Clifford is a disabled activist, disability consultant and writer. The War on Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe published by Zed Books, which won the 2021 Bread and Roses award for Radical Publishing. In the book, “… from spineless political opposition to self-interested disability charities, rightwing ideological myopia to the media demonization of benefits claimants, a shocking picture emerges of how the government of the fifth-richest country in the world has been able to marginalize disabled people with near-impunity.” (Bloomsbury Publishing.)

Ellen has worked and campaigned within the disability justice sector for 24 years, predominantly within organisations run and controlled by Deaf and Disabled People (DDPOs). She sits on the Disabled People Against Cuts national steering group and is Co-Chair of the Experts by Experience Commission on Social Security.  Her second book Dispensable Lives: COVID-19, Disability and Profit is published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2024.


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