Review of Tom Shakespeare’s new book

I hasten to add these are my own musings and not those of the disabled members council. I just thought to get people thinking about the issues Tom has raised, so don’t shoot the NUJ, shoot me!
Michael Morgan


Tom Shakespeare
Routledge, 2006
ISBN 10:0 – 415 – 34719 – X

Bert Massie of the DRC has compared Tom Shakespeare to Galileo, which I think is overdoing it a bit, though there is no doubt that this is a full frontal assault on the central ideological stance of the disability movement – the social model of disability. Many of us have been critical of the social model before this – some want to bin it altogether, and some want to develop a more advanced social model which will ‘extend’ the theory to accommodate the other sides of disability – the psychological, medical, emotional etc – so glaringly absent in the original. Tom Shakespeare is however nothing if not radical: ‘social model theory has reached a dead end’. The problem is what do we replace it with?

The social model of disability emerged from the political struggle of disabled people to bring in legislation to secure the rights of disabled people, a drive that ultimately resulted in the Disability Discrimination Act coming into law in 1995. As successful social movements do, it developed a simple set of rhetorical positions, distilled into memorable slogans – ‘it’s society that disables people, not their bodies’. This helped inspire a generation of disabled radicals whose action in turn helped to secure the legislative change.

All so good, except this initial ideological stance was now developed into a full-scale social and cultural theory, one moreover which presented an overall definition of disability. The key problem was the dichotomy laid down between the social model of disability and the medical or individuated model. Essentially this meant disability became a social construct, one in which impairment as such was held to be neutral if not irrelevant. This led to denial of the medical side to disability – now theorised as the medical model of disability – and this generated increasingly bizarre hostility between the medical model and the social model. The medical model was now inflated to include not just medical professionals but also medical sociology, indeed anything that even hinted that there was ever a medical side and the social model on the other side which held disability to be exclusively social – that it was society which created the problem of disability, that it was all simply a matter of discrimination, of barriers erected in the way of disabled people, and further that there was no necessary connection between disability and impairment.

In a sense social model adherents were drawn into a weird kind of wish-fulfilment where reality was denied and a fantasy world was substituted in its place. I’ve always suspected that social model theory has functioned as an escape route via theory of the unpleasantness of disabled reality, for it allowed disabled academics an imaginary level of discourse wherein the gross physicality of impairment could be denied. The whole theoretical edifice of the social model has been built on this basic denial. And now Tom Shakespeare has come along to point out that the disabled emperor indeed has no clothes…

Tom Shakespeare used to be the leading academic light of the social model of disability. That he has now changed his mind is something he relates in an early chapter. He has been aware of the criticisms levelled at the social model for years, but I think it was his experience at PEALS at Newcastle University that forced him to conclude that something was badly wrong in the current approach. A basic hostility to all things medical amongst social model adherents, and the ferocious response towards the new genetics in particular – seen most notably in the DAN demonstrations against ‘Nazi eugenics’ at PEALS – provided the catalyst that led him to write the present book.

Tom Shakespeare writes from a perspective derived from critical realism. Philosophically critical realism developed in response to post-modernism and in holding that there is an objective reality ‘out there’ – even while recognizing the phenomenological and epistemological problems involved in ascertaining it – rescued social science research from mere story telling and the dead end of postmodernist theory. It’s no accident that almost all disabled studies research under the social model has been based on social constructionism – precisely because it prioritized theory over empirical research and so enabled social model theorists to deny reality for so long.

One of my delights in recent years was to read Ian Hacking’s book The Social Construction of What? which cheerfully demolished the pretensions of social constructionism. Like that scene from Lord of the Rings when Gandalf rouses the king of the Ronin from his centuries-long stupor, this also caused social scientists to cast off the heavy weight of theory and to reaffirm the primacy of research into, um, reality. The postmodernist spell was broken. Tom Shakespeare has also read Hacking – indeed he acknowledges this several times. It’s Tom Shakespeare’s continual reaffirmation of reality over theory and a rediscovery of empirically based research that forms the structure behind his analysis. As John Banville put it in his novel, Copernicus, ‘theories are but words, the world is a fact’.

There are however a few omissions in his reading which maybe are worth a mention. He could have paid attention to Colin Low’s critique of the social model, which was published a few years ago. Low’s argument was for a complex model of disability; one, which referred to separate dimensions of disability – a medical dimension, a social, dimension (and an emotional dimension, psychological dimension, sexual dimension etc.) all operating within the same overall model.

Maybe we don’t need to employ any sociological or cultural theory at all to bring home the essential truth that disability is complex. ‘”There are sides to disability that most people are unaware of”, ran the strapline on a series of TV advertisements on Ulster TV a few years ago. It drew attention to the social dimensions of disabled life – education, employment, transport, and poverty. It didn’t once mention the medical side to disability – because it didn’t need to – but it seemed to me that this ‘model’ could be extended to cover all the other dimensions inherent in the disability experience as well the medical, psychosocial, emotional and sexual. Maybe no theorization of disability is required.



Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to “Review of Tom Shakespeare’s new book

  1. Why do we have to be put into ANY model. Why is it that we cannot be treated like the human beings that we are and simply provide for our needs and share the costs with all of society if we are unable to pay as is the casee with everything and everyone else. Improve our lot and bring us to the same level and we won’t need any bloody MODELS!!

    It’s the bloody abloids that complicate our lives!

  2. For balance this uncritical review should be read alongside Colin Barnes’ chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies (2012), which can be read here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s