This is the underlying framework of my research. The social model of disability (Barnes, 2012) states that disability is caused by societal barriers that prevent or restrict people with impairments from taking part in community life. In art galleries, barriers to people with visual impairments can include: assumptions about how people engage with art; lack of information and interpretation in accessible formats; not being allowed to touch artworks or replicas; inadequate staff training; poor signage; layout; lighting; and so on.
The social model of disability is the underlying framework of my research, to which I’m also taking an asset based approach – more on this in a later post.
See the appendix below for a document I drafted and I used in disability equality training many years ago, a sort of joint and iterative statement refined and adapted over the years.
The disability arts and the wider disabled people’s movements are closely linked – this was particularly the case in the 1980s and 1990s (Barnes, 2008). This has been recognised by the recentrly launched National Disability Arts Collection and Archive – NDACA.
A number of disabled artists and disability arts organisations use this social model as a basis for their work and their understanding of disability. I cite them in my research – many of them are cited for other reasons as well.
Blind artist Carmen Papalia calls for ‘A New Model of Access’:
If the language above is familiar to you it’s because it was lifted from the definition of the Social Model of Disability—a concept that proposes that disability is not a quality inherent within me as an individual, but is something cast upon me and defined by the choices of people in positions of power. For example, if I, a person who learns about his surroundings through his non-visual senses, experience limited access to a museum exhibition because there are few opportunities for me to engage with the material being presented in a way that is not visual, it is the institution, in its failure to accommodate me as a non-visual learner, that disables me as a museum visitor. With my limited access to the museum comes a limited access to cultural learning and culture itself. With my limited access to culture comes a host of limitations with regard to the things that I can learn and the things that I can know. If a museum exhibition, for whatever reason, limits the things that I can know, the museum, as an institution, is promoting inequality (Papalia, 2013).
Shape Arts, a disability arts organisation in London, provided me with a lot of useful information about audio description (Shape Arts, 2017a). Read how they describe the social model of disability on their website (Shape Arts, 2017b).
Unlimited, the arts commissioning organisation that promotes disabled artists, has produced an animated video (Unlimited, 2018) to explain the social model (there’s an audio described version too): https://weareunlimited.org.uk/social-model-disability-animation/ The image at the top of this post is from this animated video.
Now we need more mainstream arts organisations to use the social model of disability to inform their approach to improving access and dismantling barriers that exclude disabled people.
Barnes, C. (2012) ‘Understanding the Social Model of Disability: past,
present and future’, in N. Watson et al. (eds.) (2012) Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies London: Routledge, pp. 12-39.
Barnes, C. (2008) ‘Generating Change: Disability, Culture and Art’ Available at: https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/Barnes-Generating-Change.pdf (Accessed: 24 June 2018).
National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (2018) Available at: https://the-ndaca.org/ (Accessed: 24 June 2018).
Papalia, C. (2013) ‘A New Model for Access in the Museum’ Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 3. Available at: http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3757/3280 (Accessed: 25 April 2018).
Shape Arts (2017a) Ways of Seeing Art: Exploring the Link Between Art and Audio Description. London: Shape Arts.
Shape Arts (2017b) ‘Social Model of Disability’, Shape Arts. Available at: https://www.shapearts.org.uk/News/social-model-of-disability (Accessed: 3 May 2018).
Unlimited (2018) ‘Animating The Social Model Approach to Disability’, Unlimited. Avauilable at: https://weareunlimited.org.uk/social-model-disability-animation/ (Accessed: 24 June 2018).
Social approach to disability: an introduction
This approach, or way of thinking, makes an important distinction between medical conditions and disability. It has been developed by the disabled people’s movement whose experiences have shown them that most of their problems are not caused by their medical conditions, but by the way society is organised.
Ken Davies, one of the founders of the disabled people’s movement in this country, said:
“it is disabled people’s own re-definition of their social situation, which has brought about a struggle for ideas which lies at the heart of disability politics. Those who define the problem have the key to controlling the solution.”
Disability is caused by barriers in society, because many things have been set up without taking account of people who have medical conditions. These barriers disable people with medical conditions and prevent them taking part in everyday life.
Disabling barriers include: prejudice and negative stereotypes; inaccessible buildings; inflexible ways of organising things, such as work; inaccessible information; inaccessible transport and beliefs about the way people should look.
So disabled people are people with a range of medical conditions (hearing, visual, mobility, learning difficulties, mental health conditions and so on) who are excluded from community life by these barriers.
And bear in mind that disabled people come from all sections of the population and from all communities, groups and ages. This means that many disabled people face other barriers and oppression due to racism, homophobia, sexism and ageism, to name just a few.
There are many other definitions of disability, including in legislation, the benefits system, service provision. So the most important thing is how people define themselves: are you a disabled person?