The Social Model

The Social Model in Action: if I had a hammer.

by Mike Oliver. 2004. Chapter 2 of ‘Implementing the Social Model of Disability:
Theory and Research’.


A little while ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that the
Labour Government’s aim is: ‘To take down the barriers
that hold people back from fulfilling their potential’. It is
tempting to suggest that we are all social modellists now!
It certainly seems that it is not just disabled people who
recognise the potential and usefulness of the social
model. However, its rising popularity has coincided with it
becoming increasingly contested, not just its definition but
also in terms of its usefulness and applicability.

In this chapter, I want to argue that, as the title implies,
in the last twenty years we have spent too much time
talking about the social model and its usefulness and
indeed its limitations and not devoted enough attention to
actually implementing or attempting to implement it in
practice. This criticism applies both to the disabled people
active in the Disability Movement and those academics
who have been central to the ongoing progress of
disability studies.

In order to develop this viewpoint, firstly, I will provide a
brief history of the social model from my own personal
perspective as someone who was centrally involved in its
elaboration, almost from the beginning. Secondly, I will
explore the main criticisms of the social model that have
emerged from the Movement and from disability studies. I
do not intend to engage with the disapproving analyses
that have been offered from those outside the Movement
or in other parts of the academy. Thirdly, I will examine
examples of the application of the social model with which,
in one way or another, I have been involved. I will focus
primarily on a recent project undertaken with Birmingham
City Council (Oliver and Bailey 2002).

Origins of the social model.

The starting point for the social model was the publication
of The Fundamental Principles of Disability by the Union
of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in
1976. It stated that:
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 1976:14).

This turned the understanding of disability completely on
its head by arguing that it was not impairment that was the
main cause of the social exclusion of disabled people but
the way society responded to people with impairments.
The more detailed elaboration of the social model
stemmed from attempts to apply this insight into practice:
firstly, in training of social workers, and secondly, in the
design and delivery of disability equality training. More
precisely, it emerged out of a course that I was teaching at
the time that was the first postgraduate course in what
would now be called disability studies. This was based at
the University of Kent and was aimed primarily at qualified
social workers, although some occupational therapists and
others including a few disabled people also enrolled.

Essentially, I was trying to provide my students with a way
of applying the idea that it was society and not people with
impairments that should be the target for professional
intervention and practice. This approach was first
introduced to a wider audience at a Royal Association for
Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR) conference in 1982.
Subsequently, it was advanced in my book Social Work
with Disabled People (Oliver 1983).

In recent years there has been a great deal of
discussion about different models of disability and what
they mean for disability politics, policy and services as well
as how adequate they are as an explanation for the
experiences that disabled people have. We have seen the
emergence of individual and social models, the medical
model, the charity model, the welfare and administrative
models among others (Finkelstein 1993). As the person
who invented the term ‘the social model of disability’,
though not the ideas behind it, I find the arrival of all these
different models confusing rather than helpful.

For my part, I prefer to understand disability in terms of
two models: the individual and the social. Models are
ways of translating ideas into practice and the idea
underpinning the individual model was that of personal
tragedy, while the idea behind the social model was that of
externally imposed restriction. I do not deny the influence
(some positive, some negative) of medicine, charity and
welfare in the lives of disabled people but none of these
offer a sufficient foundation for building a distinctive model
of disability.

For too long, this individual, medicalised model of
disability has dominated disability policy and service
provision (Oliver 1996a, 1996b). The medical view of
disability tends to regard disabled people as ‘having
something wrong with them’ and hence the source of the
problem. Despite this, disabled people are widely given a
low priority when placed against the competing needs of
other groups. This is particularly surprising given that,
according to the Government’s own figures, disabled
people are a significant minority who make up
approximately 15% of the population (Oliver 1996a). It
was not until the arrival of the social model that the
necessary radical change in direction was outlined.

I want to make three general points about the social
model. Firstly, it is an attempt to switch the focus away
from the functional limitations of individuals with an
impairment on to the problems caused by disabling
environments, barriers and cultures. Secondly, it refuses
to see specific problems in isolation from the totality of
disabling environments: hence the problem of
unemployment does not just entail intervention in the
social organisation of work and the operation of the labour
market but also in areas such as transport, education and
culture. Thirdly, endorsement of the social model does not
mean that individually based interventions in the lives of
disabled people, whether they be medically, rehabilitative,
educational or employment based, are of no use or always
counter-productive (Oliver 1996b).

From a social model perspective, too much is invested
in individually based interventions with ever diminishing
returns. As a consequence, modifications to environments
tend to be neglected or under resourced despite the
greater potential benefits of such investments. To put it
simply, providing a barrier free environment is likely to
benefit not just those with a mobility impairment but other
groups as well (e.g. mothers with prams and pushchairs,
porters with trolleys) whereas physical rehabilitation will
only benefit those privileged enough to be able to access
it. This is not a criticism of rehabilitation per se, but more
about the efficient use of scarce resources.

Additionally, the traditional voice for disabled people had
been the big charities that are still largely run and
controlled by non-disabled people. Recent Government
initiatives like the establishment of the Disability Rights
Commission (DRC) have done little to change this
situation although the number of organisations controlled
and run by disabled people has grown steadily at both
local and national levels. This trend must be sustained as
the voice of disabled people is crucial to delivering on the
social model.

From theory to practice.

We can see how this has been applied in examining
current welfare to work policies in respect of disabled
people. There is universal agreement that disabled people
do not have the same access to jobs as the rest of the
population. Estimates of the unemployment rates amongst
disabled people suggest that they are between two and
five times more likely to be unemployed and that this huge
discrepancy cannot be accounted for solely on the
grounds of impaired performance. However, government
policies are, by and large, targeted at equipping impaired
individuals for the unchanging world of work rather than
changing the way work is carried out in order that more
people might access it. Hence, much greater resources
are currently spent on employment rehabilitation, training
and so on (individual model) rather than on removing the
barriers to work or on attempting to prevent the labour
market from operating in a non-discriminatory manner
(social model).

For example, the Government is promoting disabled
people’s inclusion in the paid labour market with policies
to revise the benefits system, and make radical changes
in the operation of the labour market. All these sound like
social model solutions to the problem of high
unemployment rate amongst disabled people. However,
when the government talks about mechanisms to
implement these changes, it focuses on two things: a
small number of special schemes, and job coaches for
individual disabled people. So while the government
accepts that the problems are external to disabled people,
its solutions target individual disabled people.

In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is
about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the
economic, environmental and cultural barriers
encountered by people who are viewed by others as
having some form of impairment – whether physical,
sensory or intellectual. The barriers disabled people
encounter include inaccessible education systems,
working environments, inadequate disability benefits,
discriminatory health and social support services,
inaccessible transport, houses and public buildings and
amenities, and the devaluing of disabled people through
negative images in the media – films, television and
newspapers. Hence, the cultural environment in which we
all grow up usually sees impairment as unattractive and
unwanted. Consequently, parent’s feelings towards, and
treatment of, a child born with an impairment are
dependent upon what they have learned about disability
from the world around them. Moreover, people who
acquire impairment later in life have already been
immersed in the personal tragedy viewpoint and it is not
therefore surprising that many of these individuals find it
difficult to know how to respond in any other way.

The social model of disability does not ignore questions
and concerns relating to impairment and/or the importance
of medical and therapeutic treatments. It acknowledges
that in many cases, the suffering associated with disabled
lifestyles is due primarily to the lack of medical and other
services. It is similarly recognised that for many people
coming to terms with the consequences of impairment in a
society that devalues disabled people and disabled
lifestyles is often a personal tragedy. But the real
misfortune is that our society continues to discriminate,
exclude and oppress people with impairments viewed and
labelled as disabled.

As a consequence, in Britain, there began a remarkable
growth in organisations of disabled people in the 1980s,
along with the appearance of Disability Equality Training.
Furthermore, the social model became the primary means
of taking forward the idea of disability equality, across a
whole range of trainers and organisations. The next stage
in its development came when the Disabled People’s
Movement, notably the British Council of Organisations of
Disabled People (BCODP), adopted the social model. If
you read the book by Jane Campbell and myself
(Campbell and Oliver 1996) you will see quite clearly that
it played a crucial role in enhancing the collective
consciousness of disabled people and in the emergence
of the Disability Movement.

But it was not just amongst disabled people that the
social model idea gained recognition. It gradually became
incorporated into the State and there were a number of
reports, the first in 1988 was called A Wider Vision (DHSS
1988), which advocated the idea of the social model as
the way forward in providing services for blind and partially
sighted people. Thus, by the 1990s the social model was
being colonised by a range of organisations, interests and
individuals, some of whom had bitterly opposed its
appearance less than 10 years previously.

Criticisms of the social model.

There are five main criticisms of the social model that
have come from within the Disability Movement and
disability studies. The first of these is that the social model
ignores or is unable to deal adequately with the realities of
impairment. This is based upon a conceptual
misunderstanding because the social model is not about
the personal experience of impairment but the collective
experience of disablement (Oliver 1996b). This critique
has sometimes turned into personal attacks and a few
have suggested that it is only fit, white men in wheelchairs
who are able to ignore their impairments.

As a severely disabled tetraplegic, who everyday of my
life needs to make the necessary arrangements to be able
to get up in the morning and go to bed at night and indeed
use the toilet, I find such suggestions galling, particularly
when they come from non-disabled people or those
disabled people who have no idea what it is like to be at
the mercy of State services for personal survival, let alone
social functioning. Of course, white men in wheelchairs
are aware of the limitations that impairments impose, and
of course we struggle with the difficulties they create for
us. But as I have indicated elsewhere (Oliver 1990), the
limitations that our functional impairments impose upon us
are an inadequate basis for building a political movement.

A second, related criticism contends that our subjective
experiences of the ‘pain’ of both impairment and disability
are ignored by the social model. Again, I find this censure
partial and hard to countenance. If I simply focus on my
own work, I co-wrote a book on male experiences of
spinal cord injury (Oliver et al. 1988) and undertook
another study of the experiences of disability and ageing
(Zarb and Oliver 1993). More generally, I cannot accept
assertions that the social model is not based upon
disabled people’s experiences. Quite the reverse, it
emerged out of the experiences of disabled activists in the

The third criticism of the social model states that it is
unable to incorporate other social divisions, e.g. ‘race’,
gender, ageing, sexuality and so on. The fact that the
social model has not so far adequately integrated these
dimensions does not mean that it cannot ever do so. In my
view it is not that the social model cannot cope with these
issues. Far better, if the critics had spent less of their time
criticising the social model for its perceived failures and
instead put more effort into attempting to apply it in

A fourth criticism centres on the issue of ‘otherness’.
From this perspective, it is not the physical and
environmental barriers that we face but the way our
cultural values position disabled people as ‘other’. This
viewpoint is buttressed by recent developments in the
theory of postmodernism and ideas about representation
being crucial to disabled people. It is wrong to assert that,
in principle, the social model ignores cultural values. More
importantly, at the present time most disabled people in
the world live in abject poverty, and do not have enough
food and drink, while the two main causes of impairment
internationally are war and poverty. As a consequence of
this, any attempt to try to move disability politics
exclusively into the realm of representation is
fundamentally misguided and inappropriate when so many
disabled people continue to experience life threatening
material deprivation.

The final criticism of the social model is that it is
inadequate as a social theory of disablement. Now the
problem with this is that I do not think that those of us
involved in the early discussions around the social model
ever claimed that it was equivalent to a theory of disability.

Indeed, most of us explicitly said these theoretical debates
still needed to take place (Oliver 1996b). And yet, a recent
collection (Corker and French 1998) spends a lot of time
in the first and last chapters criticising what are termed
‘social model theorists’ for their inadequacies before finally
acknowledging that the social model is not a theory. It
seems superfluous to criticise the social model for not
being something that it has never claimed to be.

These criticisms should not be seen merely as
academic disputes, however heated and vitriolic they have
become at times. They have also been part of the political
terrain over which disability activists have fought in the last
ten years. There have been those who have been critical
of the alleged formal or informal policing that has
supposedly taken place. For example, the journal
Disability and Society has been accused of only publishing
articles on the social model that were ultimately
sympathetic to it. However, a count of articles published
between the first number in 2000 and the last number in
2002 demonstrates that the Journal published more than
twenty papers which sought to criticise, refine, review or
even abandon the social model.

There is less dispute that some disability equality
trainers, like some racism awareness and sexism
awareness trainers, have been over zealous in their
promotion of the social model and have perhaps spent
their time trying to make non-disabled people feel guilty
that they were not disabled. However, that is clearly a
problem with the application of the model by some
individuals rather than a flaw in the model itself. Further,
there is no doubt that the Disability Movement itself has
sometimes been over-sensitive about its ‘big idea’, but
that has to be seen in the context of the way in which
throughout our history our ideas have been taken by
others, used and indeed even claimed for their own.

Something like that pattern has occurred with respect to
the social model. Speaker after speaker from non representative organisations for disabled people claimed
the social model as their own in the Trafalgar Square
demonstrations of 1994. Additionally, the Disability Rights
Commission established in 1997 by the New Labour
Government declares that it is guided in everything it does
by the social model of disability.

This has recently led some parts of the Movement to
attempt to reclaim the social model, whatever that means.
My argument is that we do not have the time, the energy
or the resources to reclaim it, even if such a thing was
possible. That would reduce disability activism to the kind
of intellectual masturbation in which academics
sometimes engage. Instead we need to work out and
promote political strategies that are in line with the
principles of the social model. Never mind yet more talk
about how we might reclaim it, we need to get on and use
it. We must not waste the gift that was bestowed upon by
those disability activists who were struggling against the
oppressive structures that kept disabled people out of
society in the 1970s.

The social model in action.

For the remainder of this chapter I want to focus on three
areas or projects which I have been involved in over the
last twenty years that have sought to apply the social
model, although I will concentrate on a recent study of its
implementation in Birmingham City Council.

The first project was my attempt to reconstruct social
work with disabled people in accordance with the social
model principles. It was intended to provide a counter to
individualised casework that positioned disabled people as
tragic victims in need of personalised therapeutic
intervention. My book Social Work with Disabled People
(Oliver 1983) sought to switch social work intervention
away from impaired individuals and target the disabling
society. Moreover, the British Association of Social
Workers adopted it in 1986 as the way ahead for building
a relationship between disabled people and social
workers. In practice, this failed to materialise and disability
issues have remained a poor relation in equal
opportunities social work training, and disabled people’s
needs have ranked very low down the agenda of most
social service departments. There is little doubt that the
hegemony of the individual model still endures within
social work, as in other professions (Oliver and Sapey

The social model then, has had no real impact on
professional practice, and social work has failed to meet
disabled people’s self-articulated needs. Twenty years
ago, I predicted that if social work was not prepared to
change in terms of its practice towards disabled people it
would eventually disappear altogether (Oliver 1983).
Given the proposed changes by the New Labour
Government in respect of modernising social services, it
seems likely that that forecast is about to come true. We
can probably now announce the death of social work at
least in relation to its involvement in the lives of disabled

A second illustration of the application of the social
model was very evident in research on disability politics
undertaken by Jane Campbell and myself. The social
model of disability had become the ‘big idea’ of the
Disability Movement. A central reason for its impact was
that it provided a shorthand way of linking up the many
diverse experiences among people with a whole range of
different impairments (Campbell and Oliver 1996). Prior to
the late 1970s and early 1980s disabled people’s attempts
at self-organisation had always floundered on the conflicts
between the specific impairments and the different
experiences of disablement that they generated.

The social model was a way of getting us all to think
about the things we had in common, and the barriers that
we all faced. Of course, some of those barriers were
impairment specific; for example, blind people might have
information barriers, people with mobility restrictions might
have access barriers, deaf people communication barriers
and so on. But nevertheless the social model became a
way in which to link up all of those kinds of experiences
and enabled the Movement to develop a collective
consciousness that enabled it to expand at a rapid rate
throughout the 1980s.

Yet, in the 1990s, independent living and disabled
people’s rights have emerged as key ideas to sit alongside
the social model. This coupled with the increasing
disputes about the meaning of the social model has led
some activists, notably Vic Finkelstein, to claim that the
Movement has lost its way and needs to return to its roots.
What is clear is that as we move into the twenty first
century, the social model of disability is no longer the glue
that binds the Movement together in the way that it did in
the 1980s. Instead, it has been relegated to the back
burner, and its radical potential has been put on hold while
the disability leadership has become involved in
parliamentary campaigns to improve disabled people’s
rights and to enhance the services necessary to support
‘independent living’.

The third social model project that I want to discuss, and
the most recent one that I have been involved with, was
carried out with Birmingham City Council (Oliver and
Bailey 2002). While many local authorities (and indeed
other agencies) have signed up to the social model, none
has successfully implemented it as the means to providing
services to disabled people. There are no blueprints to
guide its implementation and there is not a substantial
body of experience on how to do it. This is not necessarily
a bad thing, however, because the social model is nothing
more than a practical tool to facilitate the restructuring of
services and hence can be adapted to specific local
contexts, needs and circumstances.

In 1996, Birmingham City Council adopted the social
model as a guide to service provision for disabled people.
However, like many organisations that claim to endorse
the social model, when it was reviewed five years later
nothing much had happened. In 2001, I was
commissioned to provide a report suggesting ways in
which the City Council could take forward its renewed
commitment to the social model. I worked with a disabled
colleague Peter Bailey and conducted a wide range of
visits, meetings and consultations.

We concluded that the influence of the social model of
disability varied greatly: with evidence of its impact in
some areas, but in many others, it was perceived as
largely irrelevant, if not flawed. In discussions, it was
possible to identify three broad approaches to service
provision among providers, what we term humanitarian,
compliance, and citizenship.

(1) The humanitarian approach.

In this perspective, services are provided out of goodwill
and the desire to help individuals and groups perceived as
less fortunate. This means that a medical model is all pervasive, with the professional experts in control of
service provision, while the disabled person is regarded as
‘the problem’. Hence, users are expected to be grateful for
receiving these services. A characteristic outcome is that
producers think they are doing a good job even though
users, when asked, are often critical. Disabled people do
not like being patronised or not valued as human beings.
As a result, the relationship between service providers and
disabled users is characterised by conflict, with a lack of
trust, and dissatisfaction with existing services because
they are unreliable and inadequate.

As an illustration, the Ring and Ride service has been
set up as a way of compensating disabled people for the
lack of accessible transport. Thus, the Council funds an
alternative service, but control remains firmly with the
provider. What is available falls far short of meeting
disabled people’s needs, and many complain that the
service has been set up for second-class citizens, which
they feel powerless to change. Another example of the
humanitarian approach exists in the provision of
residential care places. This is usually arranged out of a
genuine desire to help disabled people but with staff again
in effective control disabled users fear that the residential
‘solution’ will be long-term. With little autonomy in how
they lead their lives, disabled inmates are at risk of
becoming institutionalised, and invariably end up with a
poorer quality of life than they have the right to expect.

(2) The compliance approach.

From the ‘compliance’ perspective, government policy and
legislation drive service provision. Obviously the Disability
Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 is of prime importance in
respect of services to disabled people but earlier
legislation such as the Chronically Sick and Disabled Act
1970, the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 and the
Direct Payments Act 1996 are also relevant. Despite the
stated objectives of such initiatives, producers have
typically seen their role as doing the minimum amount
required complying with the law or government
regulations. Needless to say, service users often feel
disgruntled because they do not think that services are
being organised according to disabled people’s support
needs or rights. It is the producers who interpret the laws,
rules and regulations, often adopting a check-list, or task oriented approach, that simply satisfies basic standards
and demonstrates little sense of commitment to wider
service goals or to a partnership with disabled users. As a
result, the compliance approach is characterised by
conflict, a denial of entitlements and expectations,
inadequate services and low levels of user satisfaction.
An illustration of the compliance approach is provided in
the Home Care or Home Support service, where disabled
people should receive personal support to maintain an
appropriate degree of control, independence and
autonomy for users in their own homes. In practice, staff
provide a service to help disabled users go to bed at the
end of the day, yet they have to fit in with when staff are
available to provide such support. As a consequence, the
service does not meet users’ needs, but they dare not
complain for fear of damaging important relationships.
Conversely, the providers are so focussed on their
problems that they find it hard to see users as equals, or
align themselves with the aim of user empowerment.

(3) The citizenship approach.

In this approach, disabled people are regarded as equal
citizens with full rights and responsibilities. Three main
dimensions are identified:

(a) Economic: disabled people are seen as
contributing members of society as both workers
and valued customers or users.

(b) Political: disabled people are recognised as
empowered individuals, and voters, and a
powerful, interest group.

(c) Moral: disabled people are seen as active citizens
with all that implies in terms of rights and

Only when all three dimensions are met will the
relationship between providers and users of services be a
truly harmonious one.
An example of the citizen approach is evident in the
direct payments system. It stresses the following points:

• the user makes direct payments to the person of their
choice to provide personal support;
• the support worker identifies the disabled person as
the person with the power to end the relationship and
the income source;
• the support worker identifies with the overall aims of
the relationship not specific tasks, like getting
someone to bed;
• the user expects the support worker to turn up on
time and therefore can take on work and other
• the user makes the decisions about how they want to
be treated by support staff.

A citizenship approach contrasts with traditional
practices such as giving discounts to disabled people for
some council services, including leisure services like
swimming. The basis on which a discount is applied is
often lost in history and continued simply because
disabled people are relatively poorer as a group.

However, this is the application of a stereotype
unthinkable in a ‘race’ or gender context. An alternative
rationale might be that full access to the service is not
available to some disabled people. However, this sustains
the compensatory culture that has for so long undermined
disabled people’s struggle for equality. Such
compensation is not consistent with the social model or a
citizenship approach. What disabled people are seeking is
as end to social oppression and discrimination.
We concluded that services for disabled people in
Birmingham are still largely provided under the
humanitarian and compliance approaches. However, the
Council is moving towards a citizenship approach in terms
of services to its ethnic minorities and there is no reason
why it cannot do the same in respect of disabled people.

Implementing a citizenship approach.

Departmental services in Birmingham had no single driver,
and the formal corporate commitment to the social model
in 1995 was widely ignored. The Disability Discrimination
Act (1995) was having some effect on services but the
compliance was mostly fairly limited and partial. It was
evident that beyond a generalised commitment to the
humanitarian approach, few elected members showed any
real commitment to disability issues.

We know that the main disability charities that drove the
humanitarian-based disability agenda for so many years
had limited aspirations for disabled people. These could
be summed up as a need for good medical care, a
comfortable place to live, and to be protected from those
that might take advantage of them. More recently the
welfare agenda has been driven by professionals, both
within charities and the voluntary sector and within the
state, and has moved towards a compliance approach.
This contrasts starkly with disabled people’s agenda that
focuses on issues such as employment and social
inclusion, independent living and civil rights.

Recently the Government has made it clear that its idea
of citizenship encompasses rights and entitlements as well
as duties and responsibilities. Thus, disabled people
should be given fair and equal opportunities to compete in
the labour market. Despite a number of important and
innovative initiatives aimed at getting disabled people into
the workforce, only 0.8% of the City Council workforce is
disabled. In contrast, the Council has set a target of 20%
for people from ethnic minority communities. We believe
that adopting a firm target and formulating appropriate
plans for the employment of disabled people will have a
positive impact and help to overcome the poor response
rate amongst disabled people when jobs are advertised.
Finally, it is important that those disabled employees
already in post are afforded opportunities for promotion
and advancement equal to that of the rest of the
population. This further presumes that disabled people
secure an education and training that provides them with
the necessary qualifications and skills.

Of course, other factors like race, gender, age and
sexuality also have a considerable impact on how
disability is experienced. We found little evidence to
suggest that service providers or planners are aware of, or
sensitive to, the need to recognise such diversity. Again,
the only way to ensure that services do not institutionally
discriminate against minority groups of disabled people is
to consult widely about their needs. While Council
departments assured us that they consulted regularly with
users and in a meaningful way, disabled people often told
a different story. Some felt that consultation was tokenistic
and even where there were well-established user groups,
only ‘the chosen few’ were consulted and this usually
resulted in the department concerned implementing
policies that it had already decided on.

The social model is incompatible with taking an
impairment specific approach to disabled people.
However, we did make an exception in the case of deaf
people in Birmingham, many of whom do not see
themselves as part of a disabled community but as a
linguistic minority. This is in line with the way deaf people
nationally see themselves and there is considerable
pressure on Government to recognise British Sign
Language as a language in its own right. That said, the
social model of disability recognises that the
communication problems faced by deaf people are not
because they are unable to speak but because the rest of
us do not speak their language.

Whether action will be taken on our report that will
improve the lives of disabled people in Birmingham is
unknown at this particular time, but it is the only basis on
which it can be judged. There is little point in asking
whether the social model was an adequate framework for
revamping disability services in Birmingham or whether
we accurately translated the principles of the social model
as recommendations for action. The real test will be in five
or ten or fifteen years when it should be possible to
determine its impact in improving the lives of disabled
people in Birmingham.


Throughout this chapter I have argued that the social
model of disability is a practical tool, not a theory, an idea
or a concept. Furthermore, I have suggested that too
much time has been spent discussing it rather than
attempting to use it to produce social and political change.
If we imagine that throughout human history the
carpenters and builders of the world had spent their time
talking about whether the hammer was an adequate tool
for the purpose of building houses, we would still be living
in caves or roaming the plains. Finally, I have tried to
demonstrate that we do have a hammer in the Disability
Movement and that, if properly used, the social model of
disability could become the means of achieving justice
and freedom for disabled people ‘all over this land’.


Barnes, C., Oliver, M., and L. Barton (eds) 2002:
Disability Studies Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Chapter 2 (In ‘Implementing the Social Model of Disability:
Theory and Research’ edited by Colin Barnes and Geof
Mercer (2004); Leeds: The Disability Press, pp. 18-31).
The Social Model in Action: if I had a hammer