The social roots of “impairment”

Issue: 130

Lee Humber

There was a lovely piece on capitalism and disability from Roddy Slorach in the last issue of International Socialism, with a very well balanced account of the social model of disability which, as Roddy says, “turned received wisdom on its head”.1 I thought it might be useful to add a short comment or two with regard to some of the implications of the dualism the model sets up between “impairment” and “disability”, with specific reference to people with learning difficulties.

Many in the learning difficulties world feel that the social model has served them less well. Roddy alluded to some of the hierarchies experienced by disability activists generally, often with people with learning difficulties feeling excluded and unappreciated by the movement.2 As Roddy clearly shows, we can understand these hierarchies primarily in terms of a politically weak movement that started relatively late and campaigned in large part during periods of political reaction and working class retreat. However, it may also be that some of the theoretical weakness of the social model, in particular the vaguely conceptualised nature of “impairment”, didn’t help.

The concept of “intellectual impairment” is problematic and is nowhere considered with precision by the social model’s author, Mike Oliver. Numerous disability researchers and activists have expressed concerns about the ways in which “impairment” is left in the realms of medical discourse where it remains as a static, naturalised and individualised phenomenon.3 The best of the learning disability academics—influenced by post-structuralism and the writings of Michel Foucault—seek to analyse “intellectual impairment” as a relational concept created through historically contextualised discourse (thus allowing for at least a partial consideration of the political —and personal—struggles that have informed the modern day identities of people with learning difficulties). As Dan Goodley argues, “The resistance of people with learning difficulties and their experiences of being disabled (where naturalised views of impairment are at the core of oppression) offer us lived examples that enable the re-socialising of impairment”.4

I think much of this work is useful in as much as it represents a more fluid understanding of ‘impairment’ based on historically specific processes of social structuring. Where I think we might disagree is in the location of the continued oppression of people with learning difficulties in “naturalised views”, that is, in the opinions and attitudes people with learning difficulties encounter daily. The oppression is more deep rooted.

In a—very small—nutshell, I think socialists can understand modern day learning disabilities as being historically rooted in the accelerated division of labour, characteristic of what Hobsbawm calls the “second industrial revolution”, based on chemicals, electricity, and the internal combustion engine, of the late 19th century.5 This is the period of the beginning of state education (the 1870 Education Act), bringing in its train the development of a system of segregated classes and schools for those falling behind in the mainstream education system. Marx’s analysis of the reserve army of labour is useful here. He identified individuals belonging to the “relative surplus labour” grouping who were “unable to adapt” to the demands of industrial labour.6

Segregated schools were for those “unable to adapt” to the new demands of labour preparation through the new state school system. Reading, writing and arithmetic were historically new skills that working class children were expected to learn, and many struggled to do so. Some of these—overwhelmingly drawn from poorer urban areas—ended up in segregated schools with little expectation of finding regular future employment and very limited provision to support them doing so.7 People with learning difficulties continue to occupy a position in the reserve army of labour—on the fringes of the labour market and as such serving capital by weighting down average wage rates, but also available during times of labour shortage. For example, during World War Two tens of thousands of previously “unemployable”, “mentally deficient” people found jobs in wartime factories.

The late Victorian early Edwardian period also saw—in the draconian 1913 Mental Deficiency Act—the first piece of legislation specifically designed to codify and administer the new social grouping, the “mentally (and/or morally) deficient”. Rejected from mainstream schools, segregated in special provision, as adults most often found as inmates of workhouses, the new group was consigned to poverty from then until today (currently less than 7 percent of people with learning difficulties are employed). This period also saw—as Roddy shows—the development of the structures and ideology of eugenics, pioneered in Britain by Cyril Burt, father of the “11-plus”, who succinctly summed up the eugenicist project to separate out those deemed mentally or morally deficient as “the natural elimination of the unfit stocks”.8 For unfit stocks read least valuable labour.

I would argue—and do at length elsewhere—that we can understand those bearing the label of people with learning difficulties primarily through their relationship to the labour market. Rejected from the mainstream as likely to provide below average rates of exploitation, the social and intellectual potential and the identity choices of millions of individuals have historically been delimited by segregated systems—of education, housing, and community. In these social structures and processes lie the roots of Goodley’s “naturalised views” and ultimately the roots of “intellectual impairment” itself.


1: Slorach, 2011, p125.

2: See, for example, Aspis in Campbell and Oliver, 1996, p97.

3: For example, Barnes and Mercer, 1996, and Wetherall and Potter, 1992.

4: Goodley and Rapley, 2001, p230. See also Fairclough, 1992, and Carlson, 2005.

5: Hobsbawm, 1969, p172 onwards.

6: Marx, 1979, p799.

7: Thompson, 1996, p226.

8: Burt, 1909, p169.


Barnes, Colin, and Geoff Mercer (eds), 1996, Exploring the Divide: Illness and Disability (Disability Press).

Burt, Cyril, 1909, “Experimental Tests of Intelligence”, British Journal of Psychology, 3.

Campbell, Jane, and Michael Oliver, 1996, Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future (Routledge).

Carlson, Licia, 2005, “Docile Bodies, Docile Minds”, in Shelley Tremain (ed), Foucault and the Government of Disability (University of Michigan Press).

Fairclough, Norman, 1992, Discourse and Social Change (Polity Press).

Goodley, Dan, and Mark Rapley, 2001, “How Do You Understand ‘Learning Difficulties’? Towards a Social Theory of Impairment”, Mental Retardation, 39 (3).

Hobsbawm, EJ, 1969, Industry and Empire (Penguin).

Marx, Karl, 1976, Capital, volume 1 (Penguin),

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

Thomson, Matthew, 1996, “Status, Manpower and Mental Fitness: Mental Deficiency in the First World War”, in Roger Cooter, Mark Harrison and Steve Sturdy (eds), War Medicine and Modernity (Sutton Publishing).

Wetherall, Margaret, and Jonathan Potter, 1992, Mapping the Language of Racism, (Harvester Wheatsheaf).