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What next: a personal view on creating the Social Model Plus

Albert Einstein once said: “Without changing our pattern of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current pattern of thought.”

This thought led me to think not just about the problems of exclusion created by the designers of our present economic systems, but whether we ourselves also had created problems too with our own patterns of thought.

Take for example the social model of disability. It solves some big problems. It provides a world view but is it a whole system view? Many disabled people are successful and indeed many are successful without removing the barriers encountered by others for example nearly one in two work.

The social model of disability says there is institutionalised discrimination and that as a result disabled people are not responsible for their own exclusion. It also tells us that we all have a responsibility to challenge that discrimination too; every charity and pressure group yearns for more activists. The social model of disability tells us that to effect change, we must identify the decision makers who have created barriers to our participation, determine where they can be found, establish meetings with them, develop persuasive arguments and use them to convince those who have the power to make a difference to act.

This is a process that is clearly empowering to some but disempowering to so many more. It’s a necessary form of activism but is it the only form of activism? Buckminster Fuller, the father of the geodesic dome, said, “You cannot change things by fighting the existing reality. You need to build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Clearly there is a need for a model of activism that combines the challenge to the existing system with the building of its replacement.

The social model of disability invites us to identify where the decision makers are and where the power lies but does it not embed existing imbalances of power because it suggests that only these decision makers can create change, provide more resources or offer further opportunities? A Social Model Plus would offer models for transferring power so that disabled people can generate their own solutions, resources or further opportunities. The social model gave us the option of direct payments but could a Social Model Plus offer networked based solutions derived from the learning of others, new exchange systems that permit disabled people to trade skills, attributes and assets and access to technology such as that found in digital fabrication laboratories so that disabled people could design and make their own tools.

The social model of disability explains our exclusion but it can also exclude non-disabled people from understanding us. To the four in five who have none or little experience of disability and little impetus or apparent requirement to understand us, the social model and its allied concepts may simply be another impenetrable set of jargon when they await us having a universal vocabulary that speaks to them of thwarted ambition, dealing with shocks or responding to a loss and finding strengths in that response.

The time may have moved on from defining ourselves in terms of our exclusion to defining ourselves in terms of what non-disabled people need from us. The true challenge may not be combating ableist attitudes and practices but about making it impossible for non-disabled people to define the human condition without incorporating the experience of being disabled. True subversion is about entering the centre of the mainstream and moving that centre in our direction. The LGBT movement have been brilliant at demonstrating this; surely it’s time to follow suit.

In our own lifetimes or the lifetimes of our parents or grandparents, almost every model for explaining human behaviour, the order of our society, or even the structure of the atom has been updated. Isn’t it natural that a theory of disability coined in 1978 is now due for an overhaul? I believe the time is long overdue. We all would benefit from a modification of the existing design so that it will prove to be even more user friendly, in the same way that Microsoft continually updates its software. For too long we have clung to a model like the person waiting 40 minutes at the bus stop who thinks that if they start walking they will miss the bus. In the meantime, other forms of transport (or models) are leaving that also offer a way of getting home and many people and decision makers of all kinds know it.

Taking the advice of Buckminster Fuller; what needs to change? What do we need to build?

I believe we need to put belief in ourselves, each other, and in the future at the centre of what we do; the promotion of beliefs and thinking that aids adaptation, problem solving, empathy and resilience. Every day we see the belief of Olympian and Paralympian competitors beamed into our homes and are moved by them, win or lose. I believe it is enough for us to see the wonder of our own existence, we don’t need to go to Rio to do that. We are two thirds water and one third dust in the act of walking, talking, creating, thinking, living – enough said.

We need to work towards an inclusive community, a non-disability/disability global community informed by our experience of our response to our disability or long-term health conditions. How do we do it? Well, we have better tools than we have ever had before and one shortcut has to be helping more disabled people to get online and share their stories. When will we know we have succeeded? When disabled people are supported to lead the changes to our society that are beneficial to everyone.

By Philip Connolly

Does traditional campaigning ring your Alexander Graham Bell? Or do you yearn for something different? Got your own unique model that leads to real change? Tell us more by messaging us on Facebook, tweeting us @DUnitedUK, emailing us at or leaving your comments below.

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