The personal tragedy theory of disability, Mike Oliver, and the social model

In 1976, a group of activists known as the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), introduced a set of terms intended to counter medicalized definitions of disability.  While the medicalized definitions previously articulated were ultimately reducible to individual pathology, the UPIAS definitions locate the “causes” of disability within society and social organization. The UPIAS defined disability in this way:

Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. To understand this it is necessary to grasp the distinction between the physical impairment and the social situation, called ‘disability,’ of people with such impairment. Thus, we define impairment 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 organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities. Physical disability is therefore a particular form of social oppression.

In Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability, Carol Thomas interviewed some of the women who had been members of the UPIAS.  The women were candid about the sexism that seemed to pervade the group. While the women recall that male dominance and sexism conditioned the interactions and leadership within the Union as well as its agenda, most of them are nevertheless in agreement that the long-term gains of the UPIAS outweigh this, and other, negative aspects of the group. 

As disability theorists and activists know, the UPIAS definitions were given more comprehensive articulation by British disability theorist Michael Oliver in “the social model of disability.”  In 1990, Oliver wrote that “the personal tragedy theory of disability” underpins medicalized and individualized conceptions of disability. If disability is represented as a tragedy, Oliver remarked, disabled people will be perceived as the victims of some tragic happening or circumstance; furthermore, this perception will translate into social policies that aim to compensate disabled people for the tragedies that have befallen them. Oliver argued that disability should instead be regarded as a form of social oppression. If disability were defined as social oppression, he asserted, then disabled people would be recognised as the collective victims of an uncaring and ignorant society (rather than as individual victims of circumstance); furthermore, this definition would translate into social policies that aim to rectify and redress social injustice, rather than correct and compensate individuals.

An example of this misrepresentation of disability —  the “personal tragedy” theory of disability — was, disappointingly, posted the other day to the Feminist Philosophers blog under the heading of “Olympic Tragedy”.  The post briefly quotes from a New York Times article about a dancer who fell and was injured during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and who now, in the words of the Times, “suffers from nerve and spinal damage.”  One has to wonder why this story was posted to FP, for there is no political analysis by FP of the way in which this accident was reported by the Times: neither the assumptions underpinning the reporting (e.g., why did this become an international news item?), nor the language employed to describe the accident are interrogated.  Indeed, the author of the post at FP uses the following poignant sentence to end the quote from the Times: “Doctors have told her family it is unlikely she will ever walk again.” 

To those unacquainted with the arguments of disability theorists and activists and disability studies perspectives the remark which ends the Times quote might seem like an innocent prediction of future events.  However, to those who hold a social-political analysis of disability the sentence will probably seem like code for some version of the following: “her [your] life is over,” “ her [your] quality of life will be poor,” “her [your] life will not be worth living,” “she [you] would be better off dead”.  As various disability theorists have explained, furthermore, such a remark overestimates the importance of the activity of “walking,” elevates it to an almost sine qua non status, as a defining characteristic of the human being, without which one’s humanity is compromised.  This set of beliefs (which has been given expression in films such as the truly awful “Million Dollar Baby”) conditions the discrimination, exclusion and widespread physical inaccessibility wheelchair users experience on a daily basis.  Thankfully, the post has at the time of this writing received only one unfortunate comment, according to which the fall is “a terrible shame” for, among other actors, “the world”.  Never mind Darfur.  Forget climate change.  That one individual will possibly become a wheelchair user is a tragedy that has been visited upon humankind.  Though the tone of my previous remark might seem excessive, it is meant to underscore the fact that the “personal tragedy” approach to disability often goes unrecognized, unaknowledged and unexamined because language, narrative and interpretation are perspectival and situated, because the oppression of disabled people is so pervasive, and furthermore, because disabled people have not had access to prominent forums and venues in which to articulate their subjective understandings of the disadvantaged social circumstances they confront, the social relations from which they arise, and what is required to rectify them.

Oliver and other “social modellists” claim that the radical innovation of the social model (and the UPIAS document from which it derived) is that it severs the causal relation between the bodies of disabled people (impairment) and their social circumstances (disability). As Oliver put it, “the social model insists [that] disablement is nothing to do with the body. It is a consequence of social oppression.” On the social model, he explained, disability is comprised of the innumerable aspects of social life that impose restrictions on disabled people, including personal prejudice, inaccessible public buildings, unusable public transportation systems, segregated education, exclusionary workplace arrangements, and so on. He pointed out, furthermore, that the consequences of these restrictions do not simply fall on random individuals as the personal tragedy theory implies, but rather systematically accrue to disabled people as a group who experience institutionalised discrimination throughout society.

In other contexts, I have shown why one ought not to accept the foundationalist assumptions of the social model, nor its argument according to which there is no causal connection between impairment and disability. Notwithstanding the fact that proponents of the social model misunderstand the productive machinations of modern power, however, their arguments have historical importance insofar as they generated the social unrest that spawned a social movement (at least in the UK), they resonate in much current disability theory, and they have rich insights to offer with regard to a host of contemporary states of affairs.



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4 thoughts on “The personal tragedy theory of disability, Mike Oliver, and the social model

  1. Shelley, thanks for the remimnder that a very unsophisticated person might take it as saying her life is over. That would, of course, be a silly thought, and I’ll correct it. I can’t for a second believe you’ll be happy with the correction, so I won’t return here to see how I’ve earned further disapproval. there’s no point.

  2. Pingback: An Olympic Tragedy: A Clarification « Feminist Philosophers

  3. Pingback: “[L]ook who they are and how many of them are saying it.” « Urocyon’s Meanderings

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