An Intersectional Look At The Social Model

Today I want to look at the social model of disability and primarily how closely it intersects (overlaps) with feminist theory.

“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.” UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation) statement from 1975

The Social Model in a nut shell

The social model of disability states that people with impairments are disabled not by their impairments (as the medical model states) but that they are disabled by the directly & indirectly inaccessible world we live in. The key to understanding the social model is understanding how impairments are different from disability. Within the social model any medical condition is called an impairment – a chronic health condition, a amputation, a denigrative disease, a mental health disorder, being non-neurological, a genetic condition or anything else that causes a body &/or mind to deviate from the “norm”. A impairment can have a variety of effects on a person which take varying amounts of energy to cope with. Some may barely notice an impairment others may feel it’s presence constantly and often overwhelmingly.

As mentioned in the quote above, disability is something imposed on top of those impairments. It’s being given a wheelchair to use but not being able to get it into shops because of poor accessibility. It’s being looked over for a job because of societal stigma about mental health. It’s being expected to live below the poverty line and lie for 12 hours daily in your urine because society thinks you don’t deserve more.

How does that all intersect with feminism?

One of the ideas in the social model is that because people with impairments do not fit our societies idea of normality they are treated less favourably, oppressed and forced out by society. This is done by stigmatising people with impairments, institutionalising them, sterilising them, refusing to educate them, abusing them, euthanising them and perniciously by ignoring them.

A quote from Rosemarie Garland-Thompson will hopefully tie this up;

“Female, disabled and dark bodies are supposed to be dependant, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies. Femininity and race are performances of disability. Women and the disabled are portrayed as helpless, dependant, weak, vulnerable and incapable bodies.”

Feminism has long argued that the world we live in is a Patriarchy where overwhelmingly the voices of people in power are male because societal norms, values and cultures are set up to favour them. Being “male” becomes the norm which “female” bodies deviate from. In this way the oppression women face (as well as that faced by black & minority ethnic/ people of colour and LGBTIQ people is) comes from a similar place. Whilst the effects obviously vary, we are oppressed by not meeting the hidden arbitrary societal norm.

There are lots of ways that both feminist and disability issues intersect and that arguments from both sides can be strengthened if they are looked at together. I’ll give a example now by looking at one way that medicalisation of “difference to the normal” has been used to as a tool of oppression.

We can see  the normal actions and behaviours of female bodies have been pathologised throughout history because they deviate from the masculine norm. They have been thought of as hysterical, over/under indulgent, intellectually impaired and a host of other things. Today feminist theory would argue that the unnecessary medicalisation of the normal effects of hormones for example has been used as a social (and physical) tool to oppress women. We see the same when we look at how people with bodily differences are labelled as defective, deficient, freaks, subnormal, pitiable, eternally child-like, incapable and so on. Disability rights activists argue that impairments are normal and natural things which shouldn’t be automatically associated with any of the words listed previously. The same way that feminists would rightly argue that calling a woman who is publicly experiencing emotions as defective (hysterical) is problematic the same can be said about those who label those who were born with one foot as defective (cripples).

By looking at these issues together, and going further to include racial, trans* and sexuality critiques we start moving towards the the root of the issue; the oppression of those who deviate from a hidden ideal of normality (commonly thought to be a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, non-disabled man). 

  1. This is so impressive to me – whenever I've tried to write about this, I've given up, “It'd take a book!” (You may have noticed by now, the trouble I have being succinct.)

    To make this even more intersectional, I think it's in trans* issues that all this becomes most obvious; trans* folk experience sexism because they deviate from all kinds of gender norms and nonsense standards of appearance, behaviour and so forth, but these are mingled with the stigma of mental ill health (even if GID is the only issue) and a body that is seem as a medical curiosity, something that strange and threatening (even, or perhaps especially, if the body hasn't undergone any alteration).

    Anyway, brilliant, thank you. 🙂


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