Article: 'What to do?' by Vic Finkelstein (2000)
Celebrating UPIAS's 50th Anniversary: Part 8
About the Series:
The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) was formed in September 1972, after Paul Hunt wrote letters to different newspapers and magazines asking disabled people to help set up a new organisation.
Hunt first suggested that this should be a ‘consumer group’ to look at the different kinds of support disabled people were getting and decide which gave them the most control over their lives. UPIAS quickly became much more than that. The group brought together disabled people who were sick of being let down by poor housing, segregated education, campaigns about ‘disability’ that were led by non-disabled people, and new kinds of ‘help’ from charities and governments that didn’t bother to ask them what they needed or wanted.
They decided that they needed to get to the bottom of why disabled people got such a bad deal: why were they so often poor; why were physical buildings and public spaces built in a way that shut them out; why were they kept separated from non-disabled people in special Homes, hospitals, clubs, and transport; why did non-disabled people think they had a right to make decisions about their lives?
During these discussions, UPIAS members realised that this inequality had nothing to do with their bodies or minds being different to anyone else’s. With the state of technology and know-how in the 1970s, there was no reason why a wheelchair user, a blind person, someone with no hearing, a pain condition, etc, couldn’t get a job, an appropriate house adapted, or use public transport if it was adapted for their mobility needs. This meant that there is a difference between an impairment – a person’s body or mind being different to other people’s – and their disability – the fact that society is designed in such a way that they are stopped from doing what other people do.
This idea, which was later called the "social model of disability" inspired the Disabled People’s Movement in Britain and worldwide. UPIAS members understood that the only way to change their exclusion was to change society and that only disabled people could see what changes needed to be made. They brought the idea to their local work, setting up Coalitions and Centres for Integrated Living, and made the idea national when they helped form the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP). Through BCODP, the social model went global, when British delegates convinced members of the Disabled People’s International of their analysis in the early 1980s.
Despite these achievements, a lot of articles written by UPIAS members have been out of print for decades. To celebrate UPIAS’s influence on us as disabled activists, we will be publishing articles by UPIAS members each week for the next two months to help activists today better understand our history. Each article will be free to download, with large print and easier-to-read versions alongside a text only, screen-reader friendly version of the original.
This article, by Vic Finkelstein, is a critique of the Disabled People’s Movement and it’s leadership in the late 1990s from the perspective of UPIAS’s radical theory. Finkelstein argues that the leadership’s focus on parliament to win reforms, combined with disabled academics’ insistence that the social model must be more person centred, has robbed the Movement of its radicalism. Instead of a broad, grassroots movement to change the world, Finkelstein argues, the Movement was at risk of falling into elitism. Most activists were not involved in deciding what the Movement should do, and the social model (which should have helped them decide their own priorities and strategy) was being turned into something that talked about feelings and identity instead of the social world. Finkelstein argues that, to really make itself democratic, the Movement must look out to the struggles of workers and climate activists; learning from their ways of working and making the fight against disablement part of their struggles.