Is disability different? A reply to Rob Murthwaite

Issue: 152

Roddy Slorach

Rob Murthwaite’s review of my book A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability endorses its general approach that disability ­discrimination is rooted in the development and continued existence of capitalist society.1 However, I want to respond to two criticisms Rob raises.

His first, objecting to the lack of space given to an analysis of the ­biopsychosocial (BPS) model of disability, is well made. As the name implies, the BPS model emphasises negative attitudes among benefit claimants rather than social factors in explaining poverty among disabled people. The BPS model was developed by successive governments from 2008 onwards to justify stricter assessment regimes and tighten eligibility criteria for ESA and other disability benefits, with the aim of reducing what were seen as unacceptably high levels of claims. It has been analysed at length elsewhere, so won’t be discussed further here.2 Rob’s main disagreement concerns the book’s analysis of the nature of disability discrimination—specifically a passage from the section on disability identity in Chapter 13:

The point, however, remains that their more fragmented experiences of oppression means disabled people are less likely to identify with each other than other groups of the oppressed. The social model’s assumption that disabled people can find common cause first and foremost with other disabled people is therefore problematic.3

After quoting this passage, Rob goes on to say: “The idea that the oppression of disabled people is somehow fundamentally different from oppression based on race or gender runs throughout this section without a convincing argument being made in support of this contention”.4

Any political account of a type of oppression must examine its particularities. But at no point does the book state that disability discrimination is ­“fundamentally” different from other forms of oppression. It starts from the insights of the social model of disability, but goes on to argue that impairment is central to a more rounded and explicitly Marxist account of disability as a form of oppression. The core arguments in the book were developed from an article written for this journal five years ago, where I wrote that impairment is “the raw material on which disability discrimination works”.5

It is important to acknowledge that this is a controversial subject among disabled people. Disability discrimination works by constantly reducing people to their particular “deficits”, or diagnostic labels—or by denying the significance or presence of these in the first place. But that’s precisely why I think it necessary to discuss impairment.

Most of those familiar with the term “disability” tend to confuse it with ­limitations in someone’s physical, sensory or functioning; in other words, impairments. But for 40 years disability activists (particularly in the UK) have insisted on a sharp distinction between the concept of disability and that of impairment. The social model of disability shows how people with impairments are marginalised, excluded and scapegoated by a society that refuses to take account of their needs. Very few people, however, understand this distinction. The disadvantages faced by disabled people are commonly seen to be inevitable, arising directly from their particular impairment. So the meaning of disability is highly contested.

To summarise the arguments from the book:

Impairment is a hugely diverse and heterogeneous category, and different impairment groups may not recognise any common disability identity. Blind people and wheelchair users might, for example, find it easier to draw parallels with each other’s experiences than with those of someone with dyslexia or who has a progressive or chronic disease.

Unlike wheelchair users, whose symbol is instantly recognisable for signifying disability across the world, most people’s impairments—for example, various kinds of learning difficulties or forms of mental distress—are neither visible nor obvious to others.

We are much more likely to acquire an impairment over the course of our lives than to be born with one: one in 20 UK children are disabled, with that proportion rising to almost one in two people over state pension age. Therefore saying “disability is just something that hasn’t happened to you yet” makes a lot of sense.

Some groups commonly considered to be disabled by others may reject the label. Many deaf, neurodiversity and mental health activists don’t see themselves as having any impairment or disadvantage. These approaches shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Disability is about discrimination on the grounds of perceived disadvantage or inferiority, so not identifying as disabled yourself doesn’t make you any less subject to discrimination by others.

Despite the passage of anti-discrimination legislation, only a minority of disabled people see themselves as such. This is clearly influenced by wider political factors. Research by the Department for Work and Pensions shows that, of those who met the legal definition of disability in the UK in 2012, only 25 percent said they were disabled.6 This represents a steep drop from an equivalent figure of 48 percent in 2001. The period in between saw escalating attacks on disability “fraudsters” and “scroungers”, with huge cuts and reforms removing many thousands of people’s entitlement to disability benefits. Many people believe that to be disabled is to be a burden on the state or their loved ones.

Rob objects to my stating that the experience of oppression is “more fragmented” among disabled people than among other oppressed groups, but he is wrong to say that I don’t explain why. Besides the arguments repeated above, I explore this in the chapters on deafness and disabled war veterans, in the sections on neurodiversity and mental health and in discussing the impact of institutionalisation and segregation on particular impairment groups. I also show how disabled people are more marginalised than other oppressed groups in one particular area: fully half of all disabled people of working age in the UK are unemployed—a proportion largely unchanged for 50 years.

Analysing these differences isn’t, of course, about saying that disability matters more or less than other forms of oppression. Neither is identifying its high degree of internal differentiation and subjectivity intended to suggest that it cannot be overcome. Just as the causes of disability are social and economic, so are the causes of impairment—such as pollution, war, poverty, or the mental or physical stresses of work. These factors dictate that a large majority of disabled people belong to the working class. Socialists are in favour of both individual and collective interventions to address impairment and disability alike: we want better services and treatment as well as wider social change. The principles of self-emancipation apply here as elsewhere—disabled people must be the subjects of change alongside their fellow workers, not passive objects of the good or bad intentions of others.

The book’s central argument is that disability is rooted in a society based on wage labour and profit, because the labour power of disabled people is more expensive to purchase and to reproduce (though less so than popularly believed). This is the basis for mythical notions of normality and what appear to be arbitrary distinctions between disabled and non-disabled people. The millions of disabled people who do work are more likely than their peers to join trade unions, but there is nothing inevitable in seeing their fellow workers as allies, or capitalism as their enemy.

Roddy Slorach is the author of A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability. He is a socialist activist based in east London and a supporter of Disabled People Against Cuts.


1 Slorach, 2015, reviewed in the previous issue of International Socialism—Murthwaite, 2016.

2 See in particular Jolly, 2012, and Shakespeare and others, 2016.

3 Slorach, 2015, p256.

4 Murthwaite, 2016, p195.

5 Slorach, 2011, p127.

6 DWP, 2013.


Department for Work and Pensions, 2013, “Building a Deeper Understanding of Disability in the UK Today” (February),

Jolly, Debbie, 2012, “A Tale of Two Models: Disabled People versus UNUM, ATOS, Government and Disability Charities”,

Murthwaite, Rob, 2016, “Disability, Resistance and Revolution”, International Socialism 151 (summer),

Shakespeare, Tom, Nicholas Watson, and Ola Abu Alghaib, 2016, “Blaming the Victim, All Over Again: Waddell and Aylward’s Biopsychosocial (BPS) Model of Disability”, Critical Social Policy, volume 36, number 4.

Slorach, Roddy, 2011, “Marxism and Disability”, International Socialism 129 (winter),

Slorach, Roddy, 2015, A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (Bookmarks).