Proposing RMT Adopts the Social Model of Disability

At this year’s RMT AGM, I spoke in favour of a resolution from the union’s Disabled Members’ Conference calling on the union to adopt the social model of disability. The resolution was passed unanimously. This is what I said.

RMT’s first ever Disabled Members’ Conference chose this resolution – from among the six that it passed – to send to this AGM. Why? Because the social model underpins all the work we do on disability. It determines our demands, our attitudes, our political understanding, even the language we use. It is a challenge to how we have all been brought up to view disability: as my favourite philosopher – Yoda – says, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

The society we live in – capitalist society – disables people. It causes impairments, including through wars, work injuries, and road traffic accidents because public transport is inadequate. It fails to provide adequate treatment to people who need it, and forces us to continually fight to defend our NHS from austerity cuts. And it puts barriers in the way of disabled people’s equal and independent participation in society.

The history

For a long time, society has viewed disability through a medical or individual model – a view that some people are ‘broken’ or have something wrong with them, and that their difficulties are all caused by their ‘disability’, by the ‘thing that’s wrong with them’. From that point of view, disabled people needed to be cured, pitied, looked after by charities or kept away from everyone else.

In the 1970s, there was an upsurge in political struggle: industrial battles, the gay liberation movement, a new wave of feminism, civil rights campaigns and more. There was also a new, self-organised, radical disabled people’s movement. It rejected the established way of looking at disability and proposed a new one, which became known as the social model of disability.

What the models mean

The social model distinguishes between impairment and disability. Impairment is the ‘thing that’s wrong with you’: the injury or illness or shortfall in functioning. Disability is the barriers that society puts in your way as a person with an impairment. For example, if you are blind, then your impairment is that you can’t see; but your disability is that when you go to the library to borrow a book, they only have print books, not braille or audio books.

In the transport industry, when employers close ticket offices and redeploy their staff to standing roles, they are creating a barrier to people with impairments that prevent them standing for prolonged periods of time. A person’s impairment might be a dodgy knee, but his or her disability is the action of the employer in abolishing seated roles.

For our passengers too, the medical and social models see disability differently. For example, a medical model view might say that a wheelchair user can’t get around a city like London; from the social model point of view, though, the difficulties are caused or made worse by aggressive deregulation allowing inaccessible private-hire vehicles to push out accessible licensed taxis. The medical model might assumed that a person with an impairment can’t travel by train; but the social model would insist that he or she can, if there are enough station staff and guards to help. This is why disabled activists will be joining our pickets on 10 July to demonstrate that disabled people demand guards on trains.

Many of our employers claim that they apply the social model of disability, but in practice they use the medical model. For example, London Underground Ltd has written policy in support of the social model, but when our union asked the company to negotiate an autism and neurodiversity policy with us, LUL refused, stating that they would refer staff to Occupational Health on a case-by-case basis: a classic medical-model approach. I am not sick: I am autistic.


  • There are key differences in attitudes between the medical and social models:
  • The medical model would feel sorry for disabled people – the social model feels solidarity.
  • The medical model seems to assume that only non-disabled people are ‘normal’ – the social model asserts that it is just as normal to be disabled as to not be.
  • The medical model might talk about ‘people with disabilities’ – the social model says ‘disabled people’, recognising that society disables us.
  • The medical model takes an approach that disabled people are broken and need fixing – the social model says instead that a society that disables people with impairments is broken, that society needs to be fixed.
  • The medical model may assume that disabled people need decisions made for them – the social model says Nothing About Us Without Us.
  • I’ve had enough of hearing about people who ‘suffer from autism’ – a medical model approach. I do not suffer from autism: I am autistic and I suffer from discrimination, hostility and misunderstanding.

A powerful tool

The social model is a powerful tool. Let’s apply it, educate ourselves about it, and place demands on employers to remove barriers (not just to make reasonable adjustments for individuals).

The social model is a radical, progressive approach to disability that enables us to fight for and with disabled people against the appalling oppression that we continue to face.

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