Putting Myself In the Picture To Evaluate The Affirmative Model of Disability

This is based on ‘Discussion: Colin Cameron – further towards an Affirmative Model of Disability’ which appeared in Disability Arts Online (DAO). The discussion was hosted by Colin Hambrook Editor of DAO
All models of disability hinge on assumptions. The Social Model hinges on the assumption that ‘Disability is discrimination based on impairment’. Like many disabled people I leapt for joy when I discovered this. Whatever had happened to me was not my fault. The problems that I faced had nothing to do with my impairment. Rather, discrimination is systemic. It exists within society and society has dictated how I should live and what I should do. It has done this by creating barriers within the environment, people’s attitudes and is commonly found within the organisations we would choose to be involved in.
The affirmative model hinges on the assumption that even if the social model was fully enacted, barriers were removed and I had equal access to employment, inclusive education, public transport, housing, leisure, information and so on, it would is ‘still possible for impairment to be seen as a personal tragedy and for disabled people to be regarded and treated as victims of misfortune’. Hence the new assumption.
Interestingly I see my affirmation as a necessary outcome of the social model. I affirm myself because I take up a political challenge to the medical model (assumption, we can change disabled people, we can treat, cure or control them so as to normalize them), a traditional model for understanding disability. The affirmation model is based on the notion that a personal tragedy model of disability (assumption = disabled people are victims of circumstance who are deserving of pity) exists and this must be challenged.

Under the affirmative model we accept our impairments, we live with them. We say “I have this impairment. So what?” “I have this impairment but I would not want to live without it”. Such statements promote affirmation, they identify impairment as being intrinsic to who we are just as skin colour is intrinsic to the identity of some people, just as gender is intrinsic to being man or woman. We know who we are, we know what we are and what we could be. The social model of disability allowed such challenges to be made. Some of us may have already been making these challenges without prior knowledge or involvement with the social model. I know I was. Way back in the early 1980’s I would say; “I am a 6’6”, stammering, asthmatic, from West Bromwich, prone to mental distress”. The implication being if you can hear that, if you accept it, then you must deal with it or get off of the train I’m travelling on. Interestingly whilst my height, town I associated with, the class elements that raised in my mind are not impairments they were elements which I saw as creating barriers to my development and to the people who would identify themselves in a like manner.

To be able to make such statements was a real development for me. I had stopped wanting to be like everyone else. I knew that I was too slow and too unfit to ever be a baggie. I had begun to learn that just because I could not speak as others could did not mean that I was stupid or the faces that I pulled when trying to speak did not mean that I was ugly and undesirable. I believed that you either accepted me, included me or you moved on, not worthy of my friendship. I had lost interest in health. Being fit was not my concern. Someone else could worry about it if they wanted to. So I had already individualized my condition. When I spoke of freedom, getting out, dropping out, it was for me and only me, but I could empathise with anyone choosing the same way forward. If society did not want me I could do without it (excepting the benefit system, or loan system in education, of cause). I was not however ready to take on a political response to discrimination. I would need an understanding of the social model to achieve this.

I note that at this stage in my life I was emphasizing my impairments, not hiding from them, not covering them up with language and terminologies I would later adopt. The social model gave me a new label to proudly wear. Disabled Person. A person who is disabled by an experience of discrimination that exists within society. Even now as a disabled activist who is proud, angry and reasonably strong I will refer to my impairments. I do not think I could fully affirm myself if I was to ignore them and simply look at the barriers that had been put in front of me. Which leads to a different assumption. This is that the affirmative model whilst allowing for personalized, individualized responses should not as I originally understood it, build on and challenge the tragedy model but be an outcome of the social model and maybe help me to address other aspects of who I am and what I want whilst also engaging as an enemy of discrimination. The affirmation model may have built on the social model but is there any way that it can work hand in glove with it (should your own impairments allow). This makes me wonder about a medium term aspiration that I should look to change my own mytholgies about me based on my past lives whereas I should be looking out at last to see the person that I could be. What possibilities do the affirmative model hold for me? What are the possibilities? Can I project myself into an even better present and future? Aret here mindsets I still need to change?

Colin Cameron’s Definitions

Impairment equals physical, sensory, emotional and intellectual difference divergent from culturally valued norms of embodiment, but which is to be expected and respected on its own terms in a diverse society.

Disability equals: a personal and social role which simultaneously invalidates the subject position of people with impairments and validates the subject position of those identified as unimpaired

Such definitions assume a friendly mainstream within today’s and from out of today’s societal reality. They assume that the social model was always about disabled people using the social model to ensure that they were involved in the mainstream. I would argue with this. For me the social model was always about challenging discrimination within the mainstream, causing it to change and guaranteeing a future inclusion for all. This is why Barbabra Lisicki in her disability equality training always found room to discuss the differences between inclusion and assimilation. Under these definitions, as welcoming as the new understanding of impairment is, the affirmative model without the social model would always lead to assimilation on society’s terms rather than inclusion on our terms.

Testing The Affirmative Model

I have always tested models of disability with roughly the same set of questions which I will use here to test the affirmative model. In doing so I must express the concern that I am still not au fait with the affirmative model and I am being subjective in my own responses to the questions that I set.

1) Who is involved in the affirmative model?

Ultimately I am. You can be too. We can all be if we are ready to engage?

2) What does the affirmative model say about disabled people?

Colin Cameron’s definitions as expressed in the discussion with Colin Hambrook are quite clear. If we look at impairment we look at divergent differences within the body/mind that are to be expected and respected within a diverse society. In this respect impairment becomes a normalized expectation which does not of itself lead to exclusion or segregation. Society recognizes us as we are and accepts us in a welcoming way. I would agree that this is a position that many disabled people already find themselves in. History would determine that some of us have always been thus. Just look at famous crip exercises. Society for all its oppression as not stopped some of us exceeding expectations for good or for bad. Society however still expresses a cultural norm. Society is not challenged to be better than it is or as good as it can be. As disabled people we can expect to prove that we have a personal position and a social role. This, it is implied, is no more and no less than what we want it to be.

3) What can the affirmative model do for disabled people?

It would seem that the affirmative model is designed to make us feel ok about ourselves. We are able to confirm our own positions and make our own statements about who we are and where we are in society. It gives us the same values expressed in ‘Proud, Angry and Strong’.

4) Who has power under this model?

The model is individualized. It is for us to assume the power that we can take within a welcoming, assimilative, and diverse society. Some of us do this already. Though maybe those who do still struggle with the perceptions that surround and engulf them. However should we choose to confirm then we do not have to subject ourselves to the rigours of Super Crip Syndrome.

5) How is the affirmative model useful?

For those of us who already define as proud, angry and strong we know for ourselves how beneficial it is to be able to define as a disabled person. We are more than comfortable with ourselves. The usefulness is for those who have yet to affirm a positive identity for themselves. In its existence the model allows for promise, potential, aspiration and dream to be realized. If we accept that the model is here and it works for those of us who have already affirmed the usfulness lies in knowing that a model exists that verifies our position. It also accepts that we have moved on from a position of personal tragedy, through a challenging set of societal demands to a position where we have arrived safely within a situation of having positions and roles. Whilst we live in days where our rights and expectations are increasingly placed in retrograde positions the wonder, as my friend Rita Ferris Taylor suggested today is in how young disabled people who have not faced the struggle for an inclusive society, who may have a different set of expectations, will know feel about the social model given that we have already put some of them in a position whereby they can already self affirm.

6) Who has a problem under the affirmative model?

It depends on where you are in your life, whether or not you have been able to affirm a role and a position for yourself. If you haven’t then you have a problem. You fall outside of the remit of a welcoming a society that expects you to be here, expects you to participate.

In conclusion I must accept a bias towards this model that is not fully engaging. I am still stuck in my political rut of challenging and forcing change. On Friday I will burn Pudsey Bear. It might just be that I am strung out on that word affirmation. I am excited to think that I may be able to do this one day and realize a new individualized status which is not so self defaming. It gives me hope that one day we will be able to live with ourselves as an inclusive people within a welcoming society and it leads me to accept that for some of us this is already our position. I like to think that this can be true.

Because of my current position, because of my failure to fully understand the model, I would welcome criticism of this


  1. colin cameron said

    Thanks for this, Richard, I found it really interesting and valuable and it’s brilliant to know that the work I did on developing this idea is of interest and use to people. It’s also extremely valuable in that while the definitions I proposed are still tentative, if they don’t work for people then they still need further work done on them.

    I think my main point of difference with your analysis is that I don’t think I ever meant to suggest that there is a welcoming, friendly, diverse society out there for people with impairments to take their place in on their own terms, but that this is a position that can be asserted as a right by disabled people in the face of ongoing discrimination/infantilisation/ humiliation/patronisation. We are still a long way from really valuing diversity in a culture which promotes sameness and in which a Daily Mail mentality continually demonises disadvantaged social groups in order to create fear and conformity. A recent report from Glasgow University, ‘Bad News for Disabled People’ demonstrates ways in which representations of disabled people have shifted over the past few years from primarily in terms of sad, pathetic victim to scrounging burden. It’s a different stereotype but it performs the same function. Disabled people are still made to perform the same function in society, i.e. of reminding the nondisabled of just how jolly fortunate they are to be normal.

    The affirmative model requires acknowledgement of the oppression that the disabled role involves. The invalidation of the lived experience of impairment places a requirement on disabled people to acknowledge their own inadequacy/undesirability and this involves them in self-rejection (either accepting a passive personal and social role or involving them in strenuous denial of the significance of impairment in their lives) and an acknowledgement of the desirability of normality. Normality is equally an oppressive role because it places requirements on the non-disabled to keep their noses clean, not to step out of line, to walk this way, not to say boo to a goose, to ask permission to leave the table, to acknowledge their betters, to keep buttoned up, to look before they leap… normality involves people in learning to want to be the kind of people society requires them to be, which is a lot less than they could be. It’s about capitalism and conformity and measuring people and their worth by what they look like and what they consume. But at the same time, it is marked out as a desirable position, because it is safer and more comfortable than the experience of those socially and culturally marked as abnormal.

    My intention is that the affirmative model provides an opportunity or a framework that can be used by disabled people to recognise this and to say to themselves “Bollocks to that… I just am who I am, and have a right to be and to enjoy being who I am, even if it’s not always comfortable or easy.” We’re a long way off from the society in which impairment is respected and expected for what it is.

    • detrich said

      I replied to Colin and left this little nugget.

      I am also put in mind of a mental health service user who i regularly advocate for. One of the most exciting questions she asked me was how can she say to service providers “I am pissed off with the service i am getting” without them feeling they are being abused and therefore terminating our telephone conversations. Maybe the challenge in the model is for providers to understand that they are giving inappropriate services that it does impact on how we feel about what is provided, what we get and what we are left with and it is completely appropriare to say I am pissed off and this does not imply abuse.

  2. I have real problem with these “models” debates because more often than not they present ideas which are a million miles from the orginal ‘model framework’. As Vic Finkelstein explained, there are countless “social models of disability”, many of these undermine the ideas articulated by UPIAS and Mike Oliver.

    I also believe it’s an error to escapsulate dominant ideas found within society towards disability as a “medical” model because this distorts the ‘nature’ of “the disability problem” – the way people are “individualised” in order to determine their ‘social worth’ – therefore Oliver speaks about the individual tragedy model of disability. Likewise, the “social (oppression) model” has a clear focus on the social restrictions facing people with impairments. Again, the methodology for using the social model – what makes people with impairments ‘disabled people’ – is quite clear:

    “Using the generic term does not mean that I do not recognise differences in experience within the group but that in exploring this we should start from the ways oppression differentially impacts on different groups of people rather than with differences in experience among individuals with different impairments.” Oliver, M (1999)

    Here is where I question the purpose of the Affirmative Model – that’s not to suggest it doesn’t have one. In my view UPIAS offered a partial explanation of our social oppression – they stated that:

    “The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities.” I would suggest a vital piece of this explanation is ‘missing’; it is precisely “how we ARE taken into account”, ideologically and socially through assessment of our non-social value to capitalism, that ultimately leads to us having “little or no account” made by existing social organisation.

    The social model has a narrow focus: social restriction or to put it another way, the experience of disability. Of course at a micro level of society people wouldn’t experience disability if they hadn’t an impairment. Impairments are real, I was brain damaged at birth which caused cerebral palsy, however, impairments are also socially constructed via ideology. The social model only deals with how “disability is imposed on top of our impairments” – it wasn’t designed to explore ‘personal experience or attitudes towards’ impairments.

    My concern is that the Affirmative model might become the mirror opposite of the individual tragedy model and as a result simply provide the emperor with a new set of clothes. I oppose the individual model because it has helped to create disability by socially constructing ‘impairment’ in oppressive ways. I want to be free to explore what ‘impairment’ means in a post-disablist society before “affirming” that it has any more meaning than my green eyes.

    • I am not of the view that the affirmative model could ever replace the social model. The social model is and has been the great liberator. It has made real sense of the experience of disabled people within society and has given disabled people a real weopon with which to effect necessary change.

      However the question remains what of change? What does change mean? greater minds than mine encouraged me to think that integration and assimilation would forever be a no no as it implied that we were moving into a society that had already rejected us and the only real solution would be inclusion on our terms; in response to the social model.

      However this raises the spectre of disabled people and for that matter non disabled people being amorphous masses.

      If the social model effects revolution wherein revolution is a cycle of change then we might accept that disabled people and non disabled people are also changing. Indeed it is a matter for rejoicing that the social model has served to left the yoke of oppression for many of us and we should seek that it has the same liberating facet for all those who follow. Within that context is there a value within the affirmative model? Should we not be affirming who we are, who we were, where we came from, where we want to go? Within this should we not be looking at our own innate humanity on an individual basis, Should we not be saying the model has evolved lives as well as society. Should we ask ourselves whether we should evolve further and ask the same of society?

      I consider disabled people that I have shared time with and how I have envied their development, their skills, their nous and commitment. I have looked upon them with jealousy for their achievements have allowed them to function at much greater levels than myself. Their success within a closed and now a currently closing society has been of itself an inspiration and has led to aspiration. I have lived and am living through interesting times. In some ways i feel as if I am close to squaring my skills and interests and am completing myself. In recognising this am I affirming myself, affirming others, acknowledging how high the social model has already raised me? Is it inconsistent to laud the social model and yet accept my own affirmation as a human being outside and beyond the social revolutionary that i have been? Do i negate the work of the revolutinaries that I have sat with in doing so?

      I feel that I must go back to the definiton s of the affirmative model if i am to understand this further

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