To Resist is to Invent: the struggle of the UK disabled people’s movement and the invention of disabled people

In this seminar, we elaborate and then apply this concept of the ‘oppositional device’, which we adopt and adapt from the art theorist and activist Brian Holmes (Beckett and Campbell 2015).


Ideas, as Heberle (1951, 24) commented, ‘are to a social movement what a program or platform is to a political party: they are the principles and action programs on which the members have reached a general agreement. They define the movement…’.

In this seminar, we consider two important ideas of the UK’s disabled people’s movement (DPM) - ideas which have, in many respects, come to define this movement. These take the form of conceptions, or models of disability.

First, there is the ‘social model’ of disability (UPIAS 1975), emerging in the 1970s. This distinguished, for the first time, between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’, understanding the former as any long-term limitation in a person’s physical, mental or sensory function and the latter as resulting from the way in which society is organised and various barriers – e.g. physical, social, political, cultural – restrict the life-choices and chances of people with impairments (UPIAS, 1975).

It played and plays a significant role in the DPM, helping to generate a ‘we-consciousness’ (Blumer 1986). The model operated as a form of ‘technology’ allowing disability activists to reject the individualised identities imbued with tragedy that they had so often received from medical institutions and traditional charities, and to re-constitute themselves as an oppressed group, engaged in a political struggle. Disability activists have used this model to highlight and contest disabling barriers and practices that people with impairments encounter within their social environments.

Second, there is the ‘affirmation model’ of disability, emerging in the 2000s. Whilst somewhat subsidiary in importance to the social model in that it builds upon the latter, it has nevertheless been highly influential. Influenced by the ‘identity politics’ of the 1980s, it seeks to challenge dominant tragic views of disability and impairment. Its advocates claim that it enables a ‘coming out’ of disabled people, allowing them to develop positive social identities, both individual and collective (Swain and French 2000). It has allowed many disabled people to employ ‘disability pride’ and ‘disability culture’ to challenge perceptions of disabled people as ‘tragic victims’ or ‘brave and plucky cripples’.

Neither model has gone uncontested, not least within academia where their sociological adequacy has been debated. Nevertheless, they have operated as important ‘oppositional devices’ for the DPM.

In this seminar, we elaborate and then apply this concept of the ‘oppositional device’, which we adopt and adapt from the art theorist and activist Brian Holmes (Beckett and Campbell 2015). Our objective is to analyse the operations of the social and affirmation models, in particular, to understand how they introduce/d contingency into the present and facilitate/d disabled people’s resistance-practices.

We develop the concept of the oppositional device using insights from Foucault, Deleuze, Butler and others. We explore the techniques – the forces of ingenuity - that disabled people employ as part of their resistance to a disabling society and the manner in which these models, as oppositional devices, have allowed those forces of ingenuity to be amplified, made repeatable and refracted in many directions and for critique on the part of disabled people.

Presenter: Tom Campbell and Angharad Beckett

Chair: Ruth Holliday