Thank you Professor Oliver, for showing the way

In this second blog (click here for 1st) posted as part of our tribute to Professor Michael (Mike) Oliver (1945-2019), Disability Studies pioneer, students at the Centre for Disability Studies (University of Leeds) reflect on the importance of his work for them. What follows has been written by students taking MA Disability Studies and was co-ordinated by Jessica Wing.

~ Michael Oliver ~

As students undertaking the MA in Disability Studies at Leeds University, we remember the first moment we learned about the social model of disability. Whether that was in an activist setting or upon embarking on our current course, hearing Mike’s translation and exploration of UPIAS’s Fundamental Principles of Disability was one of those rare occasions where you could pinpoint a moment that fundamentally changed your understanding.  

Oliver’s writings precipitated a profound shift away from a medicalised or individual model thinking and towards more emancipatory approaches and understandings of disability. His early politicisation of disability oppression was and is a powerful tool for describing and challenging inequality. For students on the MA Disability Studies course, Oliver’s academic writings have underpinned so much of our learning and stimulated lively debates both inside and outside of our academic classes.

For students on the course who are ourselves disabled, his work led to a personal and powerful revelation: that the ‘problem’ of disability was not located within ourselves, but instead lay within a disabling society. The liberating impact that this has had on our understanding of disability and indeed our sense of self is difficult to overstate.

Speaking about his time at university, Oliver stated that he could “only remember five other disabled people on campus” during his undergraduate studies beginning in 1972. What a seismic shift there has been then, when we consider that Oliver’s articulation of disability has contributed to making a culture where disabled students now not only form an essential part of the fabric of university life, but can study courses about their experiences and their oppression. Thanks to him, current and past MA students can all conceptualise disability through the social model and thus strive towards contributing to a better and fairer society.

Mike Oliver’s uncompromising manner and pioneering approach leaves a rich legacy. The term ‘seminal’ is frequently used, but it is undoubtedly relevant when applied to his impact on disability politics and research. Those of us who attended Theresia Degener’s recent talk on disability and human rights at the University of Leeds heard her acknowledge the impact that the social model of disability has had on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and that without it, it would look very different. Mike Oliver transformed the way we think about the world and thus the world we live in. We owe him a huge debt and all Disability Studies students who come after him must endeavour to continue his remarkable work. Thank you for showing the way.

****

In 2018 Mike Oliver spoke to the National Union of Students about the social model, his role in naming it and how it is best understood. You can listen/view a short film/recording of him here (Youtube transcript also available): https://youtu.be/gDO6U0-uaoM