Saturday, 9 March 2019

Britain is a country which once made and has now lost its Giant of Disability Rights Activism and Father of the Social Model, Professor Mike Oliver

Mike, best known as the first exponent of the idea that removing the disabling barriers that limit and oppress people with impairments is a social not an individual responsibility, was born able-bodied son of Edna and Fred, a boilermaker, in the Dockyard town of Chatham on the banks of the River Medway in Kent in the February of 1945. It was to be the last year of the Second World War and he was brought up in a working class family in the village of Borstal, just outside Chatham's sister town of Rochester.

A bright lad, he passed the 11+ exam when he was 10 and was given a place the local grammar school for boys, which in his case would have been the Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School. It stood in High Street, founded by the 17th-century MP for Rochester, for the teaching of navigation and mathematics to the sons of Freemen of the City and bound for work in the nearby Royal Dockyard.

He left school at the age of 16 in 1961, as he recalled : "Almost a grammar school failure, I only had 3 O levels when everyone else was getting 7 or 8. I then worked for a year as a clerk in an office and to my shock and horror I discovered that being at work was even more boring than being at school." The office was in the nearby HM Prison Rochester, a Reform School for male juvenile offenders, housed in the grounds of Fort Borstal.


Then, at the age of 17 in 1962, while on holiday with friends in Butlin's Holiday Camp at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, his life changed dramatically when he dived into a swimming pool, broke his neck and spent a year being rehabilitated in Stoke Mandeville Hospital before he returned home to live with his carers, his parents.

At the age of 20, having been discharged from hospital and confined to a wheelchair, Mike was marooned without transport because neither disability benefit nor mobility allowance existed."Stuck at home, thinking I was unemployable and all the professionals who came to see me also thought I was unemployable."  He recalled : "One day there was a knock on the door and this very eccentric looking bloke came in and said "D'you want a job ?" and I said "Yes, I'd like a job but I don't have any vehicle whatever, how am I going to get there ?" He said : "Don't worry. I'll come and pick you up in my car. I'm the Education Officer at the Borstal up the road. We've had a man in a wheelchair working for us for years and he's taking retirement, so we've got a job set up. I want you to do some face-to-face work with some of the inmates who have trouble reading and writing."

Mike was now forced back into education and adult education classes in Rochester and found himself in the classroom "reluctantly becoming a teacher. I had to go to night school and do extra courses so I was one step ahead of everybody else in the class, so it was like I was teaching today what I'd been taught the week before." It was not to last. When the Labour Government decreed, in 1969, that new teachers entering state schools required professional training : "My boss came to me and said : "Look you are going to have to go away and train as a teacher or get a degree, because otherwise I won't be able to continue to employ you."

It was a formative moment because he had already "fallen in love" with the Sociology based on a unit on his adult education course and reading American sociologist C Wright Mills, 'The Sociological Imagination' and later said that "his insistence that, as sociologist, we must seek to translate 'private troubles into public issues' strick a chord with me." As a result he thought : "I don't really want to be a classroom teacher for ever. I'll go and do a degree in sociology."

In December last year he recalled : " For the first time everin my educational experience, I encountered something that was relevant to me and it was about life. In a sense it was about understanding why people are positioned in the kinds of positions they are in society. How that happens. What people do about it. How they cope with it. It was the first time ever that I felt I wasn't  dealing with abstract mathematical concepts, or the kings and queens of England who, frankly, I couldn't care less about. It was the first time education ever spoke to me, and it was like I've been involved in that dialogue between learning about the way the world works and learning about my place in it ever since."

For his choice of University, in 1971, at the age of 26, Mike eschewed the nearer University of Kent at Canterbury and chose Reading, after being attracted, "seduced almost", by "this charismatic doctor who was making name for himself and for the university being very open about taking disabled students." Unfortunately, not enough thought had gone into his requirements and concluded : "All he'd done wahe'd told the local health authority that I was in the area and so I was reliant on district nurses coming in the morning to get me up and put me to bed at night and, as anyone will tell you, not just then but even now, if you have to rely on the district nurses there's no guarantee you could be in bed at two o'clock in the afternoon and you could be put back into bed at six o'clock at night."

Unable to live a student life, Mike :"kind of survived for about 10 days" before he went to see the Director who said to him : "Look this is clearly not going to work. If there's no other sensible arrangement, I'm going to have to leave. He said : "You have to be honest with yourself and realise that, maybe you're not up to and capable of participating in university education." My own health was much more important than his kind of snide comments, so I left."

Mike's journey back to his home must have been difficult and he recalled he "almost had to go back with my tail between my legs and all my friends in the village and community, it was as if I'd come back as a failure. But I was determined that I was still going to pursue a degree in sociology. So I applied to the University of Kent and they offered me a place for the following year which I took up but as a day student. So I used to travel in from Rochester to Canterbury every day." 


Mike began life as a sociology undergraduate in 1972, travelling back and forth from home in the hand controlled car he'd bought with the £55 compensation he'd received from Butlins. It was a
time when there was no Disability Access Officer at the University and found : "I internalised that my not being able to walk was my problem and not an access problem and so there was no question of changing the timetable so that lectures would go on in a accessible venue. I just went wherever I was timetabled." He soon created coping strategies : marshaled other students to lift him up and down steps; learnt how to be assertive and not to be afraid to approach people and to be very much in charge : "I knew how I needed to be lifted. I knew how many people I needed and they had to do it my way. In a sense I already developed that skill - this is me this is my responsibility. All you're doing is being my arms and legs." 


When he travelled to London to either socialise or attend courses : "I would drive up in my hand controlled car. I would then need to get somebody on the street to get my wheelchair out for me and I learnt to be careful about who I selected. I learnt that the hard way. One day in Tottenham Court Road where there were these four young men walking by and I thought: 'They look fit and healthy and I'm sure they'll be willing to help me.' But they turned out to be drunken Scottish football supporters and all five of us ended up rolling around the pavement in Tottenham Court Road. So I learnt that kind of lesson : If you want people to do it, you have to be in charge of what you want but you have to selective and sensitive about who you ask and when you ask."

At a time when there were no blue badges and no reserved disabled parking space on the University Campus, Mike had an issue of where to park to get to the Cornwallis Lecture Theatre and found the nearest place in the loading bay at the rear of Library and it was here that he came to an arrangement with 'Fred', the Library Head Porter, with whom he left his keys and who helped lift his wheelchair out and back into his car. He recalled : "Fred was absolutely wonderful and when I got my PhD, I dedicated it to him because it made my life so much easier." 

Having graduated in 1974, Mike followed his Masters degree with his doctorate and recalled : "When I signed up to do my PhD I wanted to do something at the way epilepsy was managed in borstals and prison because, when I was teaching in the Borstal I'd met a number of inmates who were diagnosed as epileptics and they used to regularly have fits in my class room but I never knew anybody outside the walls of the prison or institution who had epilepsy and I never saw a fit. So there was a problem there and I wanted to investigate this."

Mike achieved his doctorate at the age of 33 in 1978 and it taken him on a revelatory journey : "I was just going to read stuff around criminology and what was then called 'the Sociology of Deviance', but I had to broaden it out and I had to read quite a lot of stuff on medical sociology as well and other stuff around the psychology of disability and when I got into that literature I couldn't believe how 'individual model focus' it all was. It was all about impairment and even the sociology, which you would have thought would have been about structures and barriers, was very much about starting from medical definitions of impairment and building out from there, rather than starting the other way round and you start from social structures and then you build back to what can we do in order to improve the lives of individuals. So that kind of changed my thinking, without that, who knows ? I might never have been got into disability studies. I might have been a criminologist instead."

It was around this time that his life had been changed by a UPIAS booklet, 'The Fundamental Principles Of Disability', published in 1976, which argued that “the root cause of our problems was the way society was organised and the disabling barriers we faced”. This meant, he said, that he “no longer had to accept full responsibility for my impairment” and “now understood that my personal troubles were also public issues”, an insight that led him to develop 'The Social Model of Disability.'

With a young family to support, Mike had only part-time employment, working in the Adult Education Department at the University, with Open University students an a course entitled : 'The handicapped person in the Community' and occasional teaching at the Borstal. He spent nine months looking for a full-time job, but found the "same kind if prejudice which existed in the 60s. Nothing had really changed. I'd changed in that I had 6 years of a solid work record behind me. I also had an undergrad degree and post grad degree, but it didn't make me any more employable." 

Then in 1979 the University got a grant to run a course based on the premise that : 'People with disabilities need better trained social workers' and as a result he was appointed Course Director and Lecturer for the 'MA in Social Work with Disabled People.' By this time his philosophy had matured : "I didn't want the course to be about impairment. I didn't want people to come in give a lecture on 'This is spinal injury' and 'This is multiple sclerosis' and 'This is motor neurone'. I wanted it to be much more socially focused and and relevant to what social workers and professionals do. I also wanted to incorporate as as much as I could of disabled peoples' experience into the course." 

He was also contracted one a day a week to work for Kent County Council Social Services Department and so was grounded another way, in seeing issues from point of view of service provider. He hammered out the philosophy for course with students and Kent Social Services and said : "I wanted to provide an alternative more optimistic picture which wasn't about simply seeing 'disability as personal tragedy', 'disabled people as unemployable' and that it was about having an optimistic view of what disabled people could achieve if many of the barriers they faced were removed." 

His first book, 'Social Work with Disabled People' published in 1983 was the product of his thinking at this time and developed his thinking on the Social Model which became influential to the extent that, he acknowledged, many disabled people saw it "almost like their mantra" and he himself admitted : "It was important for collective political consciousness that we had a slogan."

In 1990 he published 'The Politics of Disablement' which he considered a case of being in the right place at the right time : disability studies were about to take off at university and it was almost as if, as he later reflected, it became the "marque text" for that change. Academic recognition came when he was appointed the first 'Professor of Disability Studies' in Britain and indeed, the world, at the University of Greenwich and later, in retirement, continued as 'Emeritus Professor of Disability Studies' at the University.
The 90s also him publish 'Social Work, Disabled People and Disabling Environments' and 'Understanding Disability, from Theory to Practice'. These were years when he was active in the BCODP, the 'British Council Organisations of Disabled People', which he saw as a key platform to agitate for the anti-discrimination legislation and which the BBC recalled in 2015. He said "The big charities will tell you that they then got on board and they lobbied the Government and the Government changed, but the reality was it was the direct action network and action on the streets. In the 90s people chained themselves to buses. London was clogged up on several occasions. we manged to stop Telethon from going out after 1992." 




"Even then, when the Government decided it would introduce its own Bill, which eventually became the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, in my view they still sold disabled people and our aims for that legislation, down the river. It adopted a medical definition, it made the legislation virtually unenforceable and it proved ineffective. It had a negative effect in that it split the disability movement. Some thought : 'It's the best were going to get. We have to join in. We have to work with the Government in order to make it work. We know it's not what we wanted. It's the best we're going to get for now.  Let's work with it and do what we can. I was in the other camp which said : "No it's crap. We've spent 15 years building up a strong power base. We've got a good lobby. We've got the Direct Action Network who terrify the life out of politicians in the 90s".

He thought that between "1979 to '95 the Disability Activism Movement was controlled by disabled people, passionate in their beliefs and based on pride but since then "Disability Corporatism has replaced disability activism and the big charities have reinvented themselves. They now call themselves the 'Disability Movement'. They are just corporate entities who are only concerned in promoting themselves, like most corporate entities." As a result, because they are the ones who are regarded by Government as 'the authentic view of disabled people', organisations of  disabled people have been starved of funds and have lost contracts.

"The whole Disability Activist Process has been shifted away from 'disability pride' into what I call under Disability Corporatism, 'special pleading'. That we've now moved to special pleading because, basically what these organisations now say is : "Please do not be nasty to disabled people because this personal tragic thing has happened to them and they need all the benefits and all the support they can get." So we're are in we have been moved back to where we were 30, 40, 50 years ago, when I first started out on this kind of intellectual and academic activist journey." 


"If we don't do it ourselves then society will get it wrong. Whatever their motivations, whatever their interests, If we'd had left it to well-meaning, able-bodied people in the 60s, we'd all be living in nice institutions looking out on beautiful countryside but doing bugger all. If we leave it to well- meaning professional now, we'll all have comfortable lives in the community, but we won't be doing all the other things that other people take for granted. We won't be taking risks. We won't be autonomous about our futures, even about everyday things like when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night and all that nonsense, because we know from the history of the last hundred years that whatever their intention, whatever there motivations, when able-bodied people do it for us they get it wrong one hundred percent of the time."

Mike finished a lecture he gave at the University of Kent in 2017 entitled 'Disability History, Bleeding Hearts and Parasite People' with :

“What disability history teaches us is that we cannot rely on the bleeding hearts brigade and parasite people to do it for us. We have to do it for ourselves. We have to insist that our personal troubles are public issues that need to be resolved."


In acknowledgement to Jonjo Brady's interview with Mike and insight into his thinking, published on YouTube last December : 'Kicking Down the Doors: from Borstal Boy to University Professor'. Without it, this post would not have been possible.

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