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Disability: getting it “right”
  1. C Thomas
  1. C Thomas, Institute for Health Research, Lancaster University, Alexandra Square, Lancaster LA1 4YT, UK; c.thomas{at}

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This paper critically engages with Tom Shakespeare’s book Disability rights and wrongs. It concentrates on his attempt to demolish the social model of disability, as well as his sketch of an “alternative” approach to understanding “disability”. Shakespeare’s critique, it is argued, does British disability studies a “wrong” by presenting it as a meagre discipline that has not been able to engage with disability and impairment effects in an analytically sophisticated fashion. What was required was a measured presentation and evaluation of the rich mix of theoretical and empirically based ideas to be found in the discipline, as the groundwork for forward thinking located within a social oppression paradigm. Shakespeare’s undermining of the discipline’s credibility in the eyes of outsiders and newcomers represents a diversionary missed opportunity by an influential writer and activist.

Shakespeare’s book1 has certainly stirred up debate, and invited a flurry of angry reviews, in disability studies (DS) in the UK—the social science discipline that has been developing radical ideas about disability and disablism since the 1980s. Peopled by both disabled academics and like-minded non-disabled researchers and writers, the DS community recognises that Shakespeare’s book seeks to deliver a fatal wound to what he sees as its sacred cow: the British social model of disability.

Shakespeare explains that what he calls the “strong” version of the social model of disability was formulated by Michael Oliver, a leading DS writer and disability activist, on the basis of the social and political ideas advanced in the 1970s by a group of disabled individuals fighting to free themselves from what they experienced as an oppressive care system that relegated and segregated people with serious impairments to residential institutions and to the category of the unemployable.2 3 In short, the social model asserts that “disability” is not caused …

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  • Competing interests: None declared.