Reimagining Disability

Reimagining Disability

This is the introduction for a new History Workshop series on Reimagining Disability

Disability is typically understood as a medical construct and is often associated with violent histories of medical intervention and institutionalisation. Whilst it is important to bring these stories to light, they present us with a very partial picture of how disabled people have lived in the past. This new series seeks to reimagine disability by demonstrating the methodological, geographical and temporal scope of current research into disability history. Its main objective is to shift our attention away from the medicalisation of disabled people’s bodies and explore the richness of their lives as social, political, cultural, and economic agents.


In the past decade disability history has grown exponentially, and disabled people are now widely recognised as historical protagonists both within the academy and the mainstream. Disability history first emerged as a sub-field in the 1980s and began to flourish during the 1990s. From the outset, much of its scholarship aimed to disrupt the pervasive stereotype of disabled people as passive, apolitical objects of pity. Current research into disability history is incredibly wide-ranging and – as this series will demonstrate – it remains committed to foregrounding disabled people’s historical agency. Several university presses have responded to this growing appetite by launching specific disability history book series and the number of national and international conferences related to disability history is increasing every year. The growing profile of Disability History Month (16 November – 16 December) has propelled this momentum into the public realm and disability history is now attracting an unprecedented level of general interest.

In recent years the BBC has broadcast several documentaries about disability history, in addition to its highly acclaimed film Then Barbara Met Alan. The latter dramatized the story of the Direct Action Network (an influential UK disability rights organisation) both complementing and contrasting with the successful Netflix documentary Crip Camp (which focused on disability activism in the USA). Last year the National Trust launched a new project dedicated to highlighting and celebrating the disabled narratives embedded within its sites and collections. Between November 2022 and October 2023, the People’s History Museum was also home to a landmark exhibition about the history of UK disability rights activism (which is now available to explore online). Encouraged by all this activity, the hashtag ‘DisHist’ continues to grow in popularity on social media platforms such as X (Twitter) and TikTok.

A colour photograph of the Nothing About Us Without Us exhibition. There are banners, t-shirts and other objects on display. A large banner reads ‘Disabled People Fight Back’.
Nothing About Us Without Us exhibition at People’s History Museum (16 November 2022 to 16 October 2023)

Politicising disability

One powerful way of reimagining disability is to reframe it as something political. My own research investigates the politicisation of disability in Britain from the 1970s onwards. I am particularly interested in how disabled women increasingly came to understand their personal identities through a political lens. For example, how did disabled women organise and develop political analysis from their lived experiences of disability and womanhood? And how did a combination of feminism and radical disability politics enable them to navigate the intersection of sexism and ableism?

A fundamental part of this politicising shift was the development of a transformative theory known as the social model of disability. From the mid-1970s onwards, disability was increasingly redefined by disabled people who sought to highlight the disabling nature of society. The term ‘social model of disability’ was coined in 1983 and – in contradiction to the older ‘medical model’ – it pinpointed physical barriers and social prejudices as the fundamental causes of disability. By rejecting the notion of disability as an individual problem located within impaired bodies, the social model reoriented discussions about disability towards resolvable issues of physical access and social attitudes. This growing conviction to understand disability as something social and political had a profound impact on disabled women’s everyday lives and their relationships with both disabled and non-disabled people.

A black and white photograph of six disabled women gathered beneath an advertising billboard. The women carry signs which read ‘women in wheelchairs are powerful the Guardian is wrong’.
A group of disabled women protest an advert for The Guardian in December 1991. Deposited into the NDACA by the Archive’s Patron, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton

One early example of a community who put this radical thinking into practice was the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities. The Liberation Network was a national, mixed-gender network of disabled people and non-disabled allies. It was active between 1979 and 1985 and was led by disabled women who were also involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. Although it has not received much historical recognition, the Liberation Network proved itself to be one of the most creative and pioneering groups in the history of the Disabled People’s Movement in Britain. Its members were responsible for creating the movement’s first radical disability magazine called In From the Cold. Edited predominantly by its disabled women members, this magazine provided a vital space for sharing information and developing ideas. Overall, the Liberation Network is a vibrant example of how the feminist principle ‘the personal is political’ struck a chord beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement and was used as a tool for claiming disability as a political identity.

An early issue of In From the Cold proudly explained the political purpose of the Liberation Network: ‘We came together on the basis of a common understanding that disability is a political issue, and that like minority groups we need to organise ourselves in order to clarify our thinking, and to fight for our rights.’ Although the Liberation Network never referred to the social model of disability directly, its members readily rejected medical tropes in favour of understanding disability as a political identity. The content of In From the Cold frequently drew attention to the fact that disabling barriers within society and the built environment were the root cause of the problem. One playful example is a cartoon which drily made the point that steps can disable a wide range of people and not just those who society would designate as ‘the disabled’. The cartoon depicts not only a wheelchair user, but also an elderly man and woman with a pram struggling to access a public library advertised as ‘open to all’ but situated at the top of a vast number of steps. Pithy but thought-provoking, the intention was clearly to encourage criticism of inaccessible designs and move away from blaming individual access needs.

A black and white cartoon showing various people tackling a steep set of steps leading to a public library. The cartoon reads ‘I thought ACCESS was a credit card until I discovered STEPS ... steps affect us all’.
In From the Cold cartoon courtesy of the Bishopsgate archive

As their name suggests, Sisters Against Disablement (known as SAD) also opposed the disabling barriers and attitudes which they believed formed the bedrock of disabled people’s oppression. Formed in 1981, SAD was a small organisation of disabled women whose founding aim was to explore the relationship between feminism and disability. Based in London, SAD promoted the practice of consciousness-raising to increase awareness of the ‘double oppression’ experienced by disabled women. During the first half of the 1980s they organised meetings, attended conferences, undertook direct action, and produced a number of publications. Like many radical disabled people’s groups organising at this time, SAD was explicit in articulating their understanding of disability as a form of political oppression. Their first newsletter declared that their aim was to challenge ‘the understanding of “disability as individual tragedy” and show it for what it really is, political.’

One of SAD’s main strategies was to highlight the ways in which the London-based Women’s Liberation Movement inherently excluded disabled women. SAD members earned both praise and criticism for their act of picketing an inaccessible feminist book fair in 1983. They also boycotted a conference about lesbian sexuality and circulated a list of demands calling for greater inclusivity and support from non-disabled women. SAD’s most enduring legacy was its creation of what was known as the SAD Access Code. This was a step-by-step guide to evaluating the accessibility of a physical venue, covering everything from public transport availability to the width of bathroom doors. Its aim was to equip feminist organisers with the knowledge and skills to become aware of the ways in which environmental barriers serve to disable certain people. Because of its focus on barriers instead of bodies, the Access Code should be interpreted as a clear manifestation of the social model of disability. At the time, the Access Code was met with a mixed response however, there is no doubt that it helped to increase the visibility of disabled people within feminist and queer spaces long after SAD itself ceased to organise.

A black and white page from a magazine which shows a list of numbered instructions. At the top of the page it reads ‘The SAD code’.
Copy of the SAD Access Code courtesy of the Bishopsgate archive

So, what do these examples tell us? Firstly, that is it impossible to untangle the political nature of disabled people’s lives from the political impetus currently driving the production of disability history. For the past fifty years, politicising disability has proved a powerful way of reimagining it as something more than just a medical identity. The growing tide of disability history is now pushing the boundaries of where and how disabled people have been thought to exist in the past, and consequently where and how they are assumed to exist in the present. Secondly, the women in these case studies defy the pervasive stereotype of disabled people as saintly and passive. As Daniel Blackie and Alexia Moncrieff aptly summarise: ‘disabled people need to be presented as fully human, capable of troubling or “uncomfortable” deeds as much as inspiring or heroic ones. Thus, disability historians must recognise all the positions disabled people have occupied historically.’ This new History Workshop series aims to do exactly that. It explores the lives of disabled people from historical periods as disparate as Ancient Egypt, early modern Japan, and 20th century Britain, investigating subjects such as oral history, activism, and disability sports. All of its contributors demonstrate creative approaches to reimagining disability, in ways that move us closer to fully recognising the diverse, historical agency of disabled people.

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