View all of Issue 3: "Artists Challenging Normativity"

Disability Arts: From the Social Model to the Affirmative Model

Editor’s Note

We chose to reprint this 2011 article for the way Colin Cameron clearly connects the emergence of disability artistry in the 1980s with greater capacity for disabled people to not only communicate the oppression they experienced by society, but to connect with each other to create a more supportive—and more politicized—community. By making space for disabled people to share their unique embodied experiences, disability artistry allowed for more nuanced explorations of how those with impairments have distinct aesthetic perspectives, as well as robust strategies for generating resilience and pleasure. The following is an excerpt of Cameron’s article that originally appeared in the online journal Parallel Lines. You can find the full text at

Part One                       

Disability Arts and Oppression

“I don’t think disability arts would have been possible without disability politics coming first […] Our politics teach us that we are oppressed, not inferior […] Our politics have given us self-esteem. They have taught us, not simply to value ourselves, but to value ourselves as disabled people.” 

Allan Sutherland, “Disability Arts, Disability Politics,” 19891

I want to argue here that disability arts is fundamentally tied up with the wider disabled people’s movement and, indeed, has no meaning apart from the wider disabled people’s movement. In Jane Campbell’s characterisation of the movement as a jigsaw, “each piece vital for the true picture to emerge,”2there are two images drawn. Just as each piece—the independent living movement, campaigning organisations, the direct action network, disability studies, disability arts—is required in order to understand the movement as a whole, so each part is given context only in relation to the whole. Disability arts involves creative and cultural production which interprets and illuminates the meaning of disability and the meaning of lived experience as people with impairments in a disabling society. Central to this enterprise is an understanding of disability as oppression—as an oppressive social relationship—that ties us to the social model.

The social model, in order to establish clearly what I mean when I use this term, identifies disability as: “The loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers.”3 Similarly, in the words of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, disability is “something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”4 We are not people with disabilities, we are people with impairments who are disabled by the barriers we encounter on a daily basis, not only by the physical barriers that exclude, but also by the judgements and demeaning encounters we have to deal with in the business of going about our everyday lives.

Disability arts, as a set of practices, emerged in the 1980s in the activity of disabled people forging a new sense of personal and cultural identity illuminated by the social model: an identity rooted in perceptions of self-worth and value rather than one which could measure itself only in terms of physical deficit or departure from the norm. Disability arts was issue-based arts, characterised and motivated by anger at the social injustice experienced by people with impairments in terms of exclusion from mainstream education, employment, housing, information, public transport and leisure opportunities. This anger, however, was not simply oppositional but productive, for it strengthened the sense of common purpose of disabled people who were coming increasingly to talk to each other. People with different impairments who had traditionally been taught by the charities, the doctors, and the “caring” professionals that their interests were separate and unrelated began to recognise in each other similar experiences of being marginalised and medicalised.

Disability arts has at its heart the principles of transgression, resistance and affirmation. It is transgressive in that it involves a refusal by disabled people to identify themselves in terms of personal tragedy, as the dominant culture represents and seeks to recognise them; it embodies resistance to hegemonic discourses of normality and abnormality; and it affirms by establishing physical difference as something to be expected and respected, valued on its own terms as part of ordinary human experience.5

[. . .]

Through the organisation and development of cabarets, festivals, exhibitions, performances and workshops,<sup”>6 the disability arts movement created spaces in which disabled people could come together to share and explore with each other insights and perspectives on situations that had previously only been experienced individually. With access at its heart, in practical terms this meant that gigs usually took place in small venues—arts centres, community centres, civic centres, sports centres, day centres, pubs, college bars, residential homes—any place, crucially, that disabled people were able to get to. Through performances of songs about patronising professionals and nosey do-gooders (“The Fugertivs’ Bar Room Bollocks,” 1999); or which cocked a snook at the cultural icons disabled people have been taught to hold in high regard (Ian Stanton’s “Douglas Bader,” 1992); through performance poetry questioning social limitations imposed on disabled people (Johnny Crescendo’s “Disabled People Aren’t Allowed To Say ‘Fuck,’” 1988); through sign dance exploring the richness, depth and texture of signed communication (Common Ground Sign Dance Theatre); through exuberant reggae performances celebrating disabled identity and announcing that, after all, we are strong and confident about being who we are (Heart ’n’ Soul), disability arts speaks to disabled people about their lives and the things happening in their lives. In terms of an analysis developed by John Fiske,7 disability arts is popular culture, for it involves the oppressed making use of the forms offered by mainstream culture and turning these to their own purposes, to communicate in accessible terms a different way of relating to disability, self and society. As Elspeth Morrison and Vic Finkelstein have argued: “Arts events can provide another accessible route for looking at the world in relation to disabled people [. . . ] Having someone on stage communicating ideas and feelings that an isolated disabled person never suspected were shared by others can be a turning point for many.”8

We are not people with disabilities, we are people with impairments who are disabled by the barriers we encounter on a daily basis.

Disability arts involves a rejection of dominant cultural narratives and assumptions which represent impairment as something to be cured, endured or overcome; as a sign of misfortune whichever way it is considered. It also involves a revelation of, and a reflection upon, the experience of disability as the experience of oppression. Oppression not in terms of having somebody with a big stick hovering above, but identified in the routine everyday practices of a society that places a high value on normality and anticipates that this is something people with impairments will aspire to; which imposes judgements about the right and proper ways of going about things and characterises other ways of achieving these same ends as abnormal and inferior. Iris Young has noted that: “The conscious actions of many individuals daily contribute to maintaining and reproducing oppression, but these people are simply doing their jobs or living their lives, and do not understand themselves as agents of oppression.”9

In materialising medical and personal tragedy models that can only comprehend impairment as deficit, countless workers in the disability industry or the media, for example, play their own parts in sustaining disability as a form of oppression. Disability arts offer an alternative perspective. What is involved in disability arts is a reclamation of the impaired body; a statement of the right of the impaired body to respect and to inclusion on its own terms; an affirmation of the rights of people with impairments to do things differently and to be who we are as we are. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have made the point that: “The power of transgression always originates at the moment when the derided object embraces its deviance as value. Perversely championing the terms of its own stigmatisation, marginal peoples alarm the dominant culture with a canniness about their own subjugation.”10

Disability arts throws out a challenge to the ontological security of those who find comfort in their own normality. Building on an insight generated by the social model, disability arts unsettles dominant cultural ideas about the self and the autonomy of the self. It develops a discourse that regards impairment as presenting an opportunity to gaze critically and differently at what passes for reality: a reality which mediates the interests of the dominant non-disabled. It draws the unpredictability and frailty of the human body from the dark recesses of consciousness to which it has been confined and brings it to the forefront of attention.

In the Ghetto?

Disability Arts are art forms, art works and arts productions created by disabled people to be shared with and to inform other disabled people, by focusing on the truth of disability experience.11

If we accept this characterisation by Paddy Masefield, which identifies disability arts as a conversation being held by disabled people between themselves, is it not legitimate to ask where the challenge described above is made? How can it be argued that disability arts unsettles dominant cultural ideas if it is only seen and talked about by disabled people themselves and regarded as being of marginal interest by the rest of society? If disability arts are to be taken seriously is it not important that the end results are regarded as good art rather than tainted by association with amateur or community arts?

These are legitimate questions, but they are also questions that pose a dilemma. Given its rootedness in the wider disabled people’s movement, disability arts has, in many ways, been characterised by a levelling that is perhaps inherent in any process that aims to be democratic. While cabaret acts developed as community arts projects may have evolved many profound and darkly humorous observations about disabling social relations, it has also been observed that, in terms of performance quality, sometimes they are just not sufficiently polished to aspire to anything more than performing to other disabled people at the local arts centre. For disabled artists who aim to be considered critically for the quality and professionalism of their work, this association is sometimes regarded as limiting. How, then, is disability arts to be taken seriously?

[. . .]

Theater director, actor, and poet Julie McNamara performs at a festival organized by Tyneside Disability Arts, one of many art events in the 1980s and 90s that celebrated disabled identity. Photograph by George Wallace, courtesy of Colin Cameron.

Theater director, actor, and poet Julie McNamara performs at a festival organized by Tyneside Disability Arts, one of many art events in the 1980s and 90s that celebrated disabled identity. Photograph by George Wallace, courtesy of Colin Cameron.

It is possible to make sense of the aspirations of “serious” disability artists to gain critical recognition for the quality of their work (as opposed to having it recognised and celebrated only as part of disability culture) by drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural production as a class issue. “Culture is,” writes Bourdieu, “not what one is but what one has, or rather, what one has become.”12 Understanding what constitutes quality, and having the capability to produce with a knowledge of what constitutes quality, is acquired only at the expense of long training at art college or university. Artists as individuals look for recognition for what they have produced. The fact that what they have produced is an expression of their identity as a disabled person is, in their own eyes, secondary to its merit as art. In the eyes of others, however, this is exactly what makes it of marginal interest, or to be regarded with patronising condescension. There is a contradiction here, also, in so much as the aspiration to achieve distinction as an individual reflects bourgeois concerns while the desire to challenge discrimination and oppression as a member of a relatively powerless group addresses the class-based structures and unequal distribution of life opportunities in modern society. To enable culture to fulfil its primary function of class co-optation, Bourdieu suggests, it is necessary “that the link between culture and education, which is simultaneously obvious and hidden, be forgotten, disguised and denied.”13 While the overtly political practice of disability arts explicitly and unashamedly makes clear the link between culture and education, quality is not always reckoned as the most important thing: rough and ready accessibility is what counts.

I would argue against the idea that there is a need for critical acceptance of disability arts in order that disabled artists and performers achieve greater representation in the cultural mainstream. While disabled people have long argued, for example, for increased representation on television as part of a cultural shift towards inclusion and equality, the outcome of this has been to other purposes. The structural function of television is to provide amusement that distracts from the violence performed by capitalism, to normalise rather than offer a critique of capitalism. Jean Baudrillard observes that transgression never gets on the air without being transformed into something else. There is no better way to reduce the impact of transgression, he suggests, “than to administer a mortal dose of publicity.”14

In Richard Hoggart’s words, the media occupies a role as a gatekeeper on behalf of its audiences: “keeping out not so much obviously undesirable elements such as rank obscenity or malicious slander but worrying elements, elements which the anonymous audience simply ‘might not like’—intellectual criticisms of some popular attitudes, anything remotely judgemental of those attitudes.”15

My point is that the pursuit of “quality” as a measure of disability arts leads us nowhere useful. If we accept Masefield’s description, good disability arts will be regarded as such because of the insights they reveal about the disability experience rather than in terms of how far they meet irrelevant aesthetic criteria. The validation of disability arts by the mainstream is unnecessary, as it is not the purpose of disability arts (as part of the wider disabled people’s movement), to look to the integration of people with impairments in society as it currently exists, but to inclusion in a transformed society. In the meantime, there is a requirement for disabled artists to continue to expose and critique the oppression required by normalcy.

Part Two

Towards an Affirmative Model                              

Within the emerging academic discipline of disability studies there has been ongoing critical debate about the adequacy of the social model as a theoretical tool sufficient to address and explain disability in all its aspects. Disabled feminists have stated that the social model over-emphasises socio-structural barriers and ignores personal and experiential aspects of disability. Jenny Morris, for example, has suggested that “there is a tendency within the social model to deny the experiences of our own bodies.”16 It has been argued that the collective identification of the disabled people’s movement, and the recognition of disability as primarily a political issue, has left little room for the acknowledgement of often painful and emotionally draining impairment effects.17

The response to these criticisms made by social modellists has been that: “The social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers experienced by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment.”18 The social model is not an all-encapsulating theory of disability19 but a framework through which disability can be recognised as a social process. Without impairment there is no social model of disability. While disability is not the only collective social response that could be made to impairment (the major thrust of the disabled people’s movement has been to demonstrate this), without impairment as a departure from and challenge to valued norms of physical embodiment in bourgeois society, disability as a specific form of social oppression would not exist. The fact that much of the movement’s campaigning activity has focused on structural and environmental barriers reflects (perhaps controversial) positioning decisions rather than a weakness of the social model.

One intervention in the structural/individual, barriers/experience debate was made by John Swain and Sally French in a Disability and Society article from 2000 entitled “Towards an Affirmation Model of Disability.” Here they proposed an affirmative model: “essentially a non-tragic view of disability and impairment which encompasses positive social identities, both individual and collective, for disabled people grounded in the benefits of lifestyle of being impaired and disabled.”20 Rooted in perspectives emerging from the disability arts movement, and aiming to build upon “the liberatory imperative of the social model,”21 the affirmative model is identified as a critique of the dominant personal tragedy model corresponding to the social model as a critique of the medical model. In proposing an affirmative model, Swain and French set out a position from which it can be asserted that, far from being necessarily tragic, living with impairment can be experienced as valuable, exciting, interesting and satisfying. This is not to deny that there can be negative experiences resulting from impairment, but to note that this is not all that impairment is about.

Far from being necessarily tragic, living with impairment can be experienced as valuable, exciting, interesting and satisfying.

The original article has been developed and elaborated upon in Swain and French’s book Disability on Equal Terms (2008). Outlined here is a statement of what the affirmative model is and is not about. The affirmative model is about:

– Being different and thinking differently about being different, both individually and collectively

– The affirmation of unique ways of being situated in society

– Disabled people challenging presumptions about themselves and their lives, not only in terms of how they differ from what is average or normal, but also about the assertion, on their own terms, of human embodiment, lifestyles, quality of life and identity

– Ways of being that embrace difference

The affirmative model is not about:

– All people with impairments celebrating difference

– Disabled people “coming to terms” with disability and impairment

– Disabled people being “can do” or “lovely” people    

– The benefits of living and being marginalised and oppressed in a disabling society22

In my PhD research I wanted to ask, among other questions, whether the affirmative model is really necessary when we already have the social model, and whether, as a new theoretical tool, the affirmative model is able to fulfil a task the social model has not been designed for. Among the insights I gained was one drawn from the following comment made by a research participant called Charles:

When I was talking in the pub with Erin and yourself tonight [ . . . ] with every sentence I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to say this sentence with a speech impairment . . . blah blah blah . . . now I’m going to say this with a speech impairment . . . blah blah blah . . . I’m going to move back, but I’m moving back in my wheelchair . . . ’ You don’t think about it, but when you catch somebody looking at you—and looking at the effects of your impairment, concentrating on your impairment—then you’re suddenly aware that you’re speaking differently . . . 23

Impairment is not necessarily a problem for people with impairments, but is often made a problem by those around them. Disability is more than about just what people with impairments are prevented from doing and being, it is about what they are required to do and be instead. The disabling gaze requires people with impairments to experience their own embodiment negatively, to take upon themselves a role which acquiesces with the expectation that impairment can only be endured or struggled against, but never lived with in acceptance and enjoyment of self. There is a purpose involved in the imposition of this role, which has to do with the social requirement for conformity. I have, therefore, tentatively suggested the following affirmative model definitions:

Impairment: physical, sensory, emotional and cognitive difference to be expected and respected on its own terms in a diverse society

Disability: a personal and social role which simultaneously invalidates the subject position of people with impairments and validates the subject position of those identified as normal24.

As a development emerging from the social model, the affirmative model has its roots in the insights and perspectives developed in and by the disability arts movement. Whereas the social model allows us to understand the bigger picture, and to recognise the structural barriers which oppress and exclude, the affirmative model is intended to allow us to make sense of what happens at the level of the countless everyday interactions in which people with impairments are required to experience themselves as deficient. If this model can be used as a tool for resilience in the face of oppressive social relations, its usefulness is established.

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Colin Cameron is a senior lecturer at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He supervises PhDs and teaches sociology, philosophy, and disability studies across undergraduate degrees in Guidance and Counselling, and Health and Social Care. He has been active in the disabled people’s movement for almost thirty years and is currently the Research Committee Chair for Shaping Our Lives, a national network of disabled people’s organisations. He edited Disability Studies: A Student’s Guide (Sage, 2014) and has had various other chapters and articles published, most recently an inane epic poem by The Iron Press, Cullercoats. In 2016, Colin was recognised as a member of the Stuckist arts movement. Some of his work can be viewed at


1. Sutherland, Allan. “Disability Arts, Disability Politics,” DAIL Magazine, September 1989.

2. Campbell, Jane and Michael Oliver. Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future, Routledge, London, 1996. 9.

3. Barnes, Colin. Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination: A Case for Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Hurst and Co. in association with BCODP, London, 1991. 2.

4. Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, Fundamental Principles of Disability, UPIAS, London, 1976.      

5. Cameron, Colin. “Whose Problem? Disability Narratives and Available Identities” in G. Craig, M. Mayo, K. Popple, M. Shaw and M. Taylor (eds.) The Community Development Reader: History, Themes and Issues, Policy Press, Bristol, 2011. 259–265.

6. Sutherland, Allan. Chronology of Disability Arts 1977–March 2003, 2005.

7. Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture, Routledge, London, 1995.          

8. Finkelstein, Vic and Elspeth Morrison. “Broken Arts and Cultural Repair: The Role of Culture in the Empowerment of Disabled People” in J. Swain, V. Finkelstein, S. French, and M. Oliver (eds), Disabling Barriers—Enabling Environments, Sage, London, 1997

9. Young, Iris M. Justice & the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990. 42.

10. Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Difference, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2000. 35.

11. Masefield, Paddy. Strength: Broadsides from Disability on the Arts, Trentham, Stoke-on-Trent, 2006. 22.

12. Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production, Polity, Cambridge, 1995.

13. Ibid, 235.

14. Baudrillard, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Telos Press, New York, 1981. 173.

15. Hoggart, Richard. Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality, Continuum, London, 2005. 71.

16. Morris, Jenny. Pride Against Prejudice, The Women’s Press, London, 1993. 10.

17. Thomas, Carol. Female Forms: Understanding and Experiencing Disability, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1999.

18. Oliver, Michael. “The Social Model in Action: If I Had a Hammer,” in C. Barnes and G. Mercer (eds.), Implementing the Social Model of Disability: Theory and Research, The Disability Press, Leeds, 2004. 12. 

19. Oliver, Michael. Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1996.

20. Swain, John and Sally French. “Towards an Affirmation Model” in Disability and Society, vol. 15(4), 2000. 569–582.

21. Ibid

22. Swain, John and Sally French. Disability On Equal Terms, Sage, London, 2008. 185.

23. Cameron, Colin. Does Anybody Like Being Disabled? A Critical Exploration of Impairment, Identity, Media and Everyday Life in a Disabling Society, 2010.

24. Cameron, Colin. “Not Our Problem: Impairment as Difference, Disability as Role” in The Journal of Inclusive Practice in Further and Higher Education,vol. 3:2, 2011.10–25.

The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive ( is a learning wing, catalogue and website full of the heritage story of the UK Disability Arts Movement; is collecting the heritage story of the UK disability arts movement, which was a group of people who fought barriers, helped change the law and made great art and culture about those struggles.

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