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Disability Oppression and Liberation

I want to think about disability oppression and liberation, particularly from the perspective of a person born with a noticeable impairment in England in the early 1960s.


First, it sometimes surprises allies to hear that many of us who are disabled take pride in our identity. (The surprise is an aspect of oppressor material.) We are resilient, resourceful, and fun! Our humour can be hilarious and our relationships deep and generous. There is a thriving disability arts and culture scene. Some deaf people think of themselves as a cultural minority with a vibrant language and often define themselves as “Deaf” with a capital D. As an activist, I have been involved in many public demonstrations that have challenged disability oppression and given us pride as disabled people. I remember well a time when a small group of disabled people effectively closed down a major television channel’s Saturday night broadcast by “invading” the TV studio in protest of its portrayal of disabled people as victims.


There are many good accounts of the history of disability oppression and the lives of disabled people in different places and times. For example, Laurie Summers, assisted by Marsha Saxton, wrote a great piece for the January 2014 Present Time. That Present Time also contained an article by Amy Anderson, with useful information and questions to discharge on. I will say a few things about life for me and about what I have come to understand.

Fundamentally, the core oppression of disabled people is that we are considered and treated as if we are fundamentally wrong, defective, and not fully human. Although disability oppression probably preceded capitalism, a current key aspect of it is that we are seen as not economically useful and hence of little or no value to capitalism. At worst we are deemed not worthy of living.

Some of us were rejected by our families at birth, due to confusion from the heavy oppression. (This happened to me, at least for a short time.) Some of us were sent away to remote residential schools or care homes, losing contact with family, friends, and communities. Some of us were killed. Many of us were subjected to painful and invasive medical interventions, often (as in my case) not because we were sick but because we didn’t “look” right and needed “repairing.” As a young child I had nine long hospitalisations, many with agonising treatments, during which I had not one visitor, other than medical staff, for up to two weeks. (I now believe I was targeted for harsh mistreatment by some of the hospital staff because of being disabled.) Most of us were treated as victims to be pitied—a particularly nasty form of exclusion. Of course we internalised all of this, even those of us who were lucky enough to have family or friends who fought against the oppression and for their human connection with us.

Disabled people and their allies have challenged some of these oppressive irrationalities. In England and in many other countries there is now less segregation, and laws have been passed prohibiting discrimination. However, as capitalism causes greater difficulties, disabled people are targeted, particularly through cuts in services and support, which has usurped some of the progress made.


The “medical model” (or “charity model”) of disability says that all of our problems as disabled people are due to our medical conditions (what we disability activists call “impairments”). It encourages a view that we are fundamentally “wrong” because of our impairments. It focuses on treatment and rehabilitation. While medical interventions and rehabilitation services are sometimes helpful, they are oppressive if they are seen as necessary for being accepted as fully human. The medical model encourages people to pity us for being disabled, which harshly excludes and dehumanizes us and discourages close connection. Finally, because the medical model treats us as “wrong,” we can sometimes die of neglect or even be killed.


In the late 1960s some disabled people began to challenge the medical model. They were inspired by and learnt from the liberation campaigns of other oppressed people, including women, Black people, and Lesbians and Gay men. They argued that the medical model is wrong, that the problems and difficulties we disabled people face are largely caused not by our impairments but by oppression. For example, many of us have been lonely, unloved, unemployed, poor, or homeless not because of our impairments but because of society’s response to them—in other words, because of oppression! The “social model” of disability says that it is not cerebral palsy or epilepsy or paralysis or autism or any other impairment that causes us to be lonely, unemployed, or considered ugly, stupid, asexual, or a burden, it is the oppression. (Of course, our impairments can sometimes cause us great difficulties, but in my experience these difficulties are not nearly as hard to bear as the oppression.)


Most of us who are disabled need to discharge on exclusion, not belonging, and not being valued. But depending on our particular circumstances and identities, these things have affected us in different ways.

Those of us who were born with our impairments, or acquired them at a very young age, may need to discharge on low self-esteem and low expectations for how others treat us (since we may have had little or no experience beyond being considered “defective”). If our impairments are noticeable to others, and our family and friends were not able to overcome the oppressive information about us, we may carry deep and chronic feelings of humiliation and shame about our bodies. (We may also feel the need to “look after” our allies or “protect” them from us!) This can make it hard for us to show ourselves fully. It can also mean that the closer we get to other humans, the more the humiliation and shame will show.

For those of us who acquired impairments later in life, it can be a shock to experience both the loss of ability arising from the impairments and the loss of status and access to support, love, and material things. (This can be confusing, as the latter is oppression and the former may not be.) Anything that prevents our participation may feel unbearable in a way that it might not have had we never been able to participate.

Those of us with impairments that are potentially “curable” or from which we might recover may feel confused about how to discharge toward recovery whilst not colluding with the oppression that says that we are “less worthy” if we remain sick or disabled. Also, some types of impairments may be considered by others as simply distress to be discharged. This is a form of oppression, even though discharge may also be helpful. Discharging on this confusion and complexity is important.

Accommodations (such as providing assistance or equipment or making buildings accessible) can dramatically help disabled people be fully included. Equally, the failure to provide them may be part of the oppression. We will all need to discharge to understand this better.

Internalised oppression can separate disabled people from each other and make us feel like we only want to be with non-disabled people. This can be discharged. As a child, I was forcibly segregated into institutions with only disabled children. It taught me to hate myself and prefer non-disabled children. But as a young adult I got involved with other disabled people in the disability liberation movement and discovered how much I love disabled people. The experience was liberating, powerful, and transformative.

Finally, there is much work to do in understanding the hurts, patterns, and oppression arising from the intersection of identities. For example, disabled Jews often have to face their Jewish community’s internalised terror of annihilation, and a particular form of exclusion or marginalization that can come from that.


Our allies have also received all the oppressive messages about disabled people and may be pulled to shun, mistreat, pity, dislike, or otherwise oppress us. If they have been hurt in any way about their own bodies (which virtually everyone has, by sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, men’s oppression, young people’s oppression, and so on), this may compound their oppressor material.

Unlike with most oppressions, those who are currently allies are likely to become members of the oppressed group. People can move from the oppressor role to the oppressed role by becoming disabled themselves, and this can create complexity, fear, and confusion.

Pretence has been a feature of many relationships between disabled and non-disabled people. Non-disabled people have often tried to hide their oppressive feelings of pity, fear, and disgust under a pretence of concern or even over-enthusiasm. In some cases, non-disabled people have even pretended to like disabled people. (This happened to me as a child. I attended a playgroup for disabled children at which non-disabled children were encouraged to befriend us as part of a programme, after which they received an award and were told that they no longer needed to be our friends. We disabled children called them “fake friends.”) So acting against any feelings of pity and fear and avoiding pretence in getting close may be a big contradiction. However, even when allies show us real love and caring, it may remind us of pity and we may be confused or restimulated. Consistent, relaxed, and, above all, honest tenderness is often a key contradiction.

A direction I would encourage allies to take is to have complete closeness with disabled people. If you are an ally, what would that mean, and what would you need to discharge?


Words are important, as they convey meanings—including some that are oppressive. For example, I have distinguished the word “impairment” (medical condition) from “disability” (oppression), which goes a long way in naming and opposing the oppression. The wide-world disability movement is not in complete agreement about which words are preferred and which should be avoided. However, here are some general rules and approaches to consider (and discharge on):

Many words used to describe disabled people have been based on and been part of the oppression, for example, “suffering from,” “handicapped,” “wheelchair-bound,” and “crippled.” These words are dehumanising and oppressive and should not be used. Also, words that refer to a medical condition, for example, “the spastic” or “the blind,” should never be used to describe a person. People who use wheelchairs for mobility prefer the accurate and neutral term “wheelchair user.”

As with many oppressed groups, some disabled people have sought to “reclaim” some of the oppressive words and use them in defiance. This can be a powerful contradiction to the oppression and internalised oppression. However, I would discourage allies from doing this unless and until they have real, close, and committed relationships with disabled people. Even then they should proceed with caution.

Around the world, some disabled people prefer the general term “person with a disability.” In England, I and other disability activists prefer the term “disabled person.”

What we are all trying to do is reach for language that highlights our humanness and that names the oppression as opposed to the impairment.

It’s okay to make a mistake—and, again, not all disabled people agree on which specific words they prefer—but please think, discharge, and ask.


Disability liberation will benefit all of us humans and enrich our lives in ways we may not yet understand. It also supports one of our core understandings as Co-Counsellors—that we are all good.

David Ruebain
London, England

1 “Material” means distress.
See “Toward a Policy on Disability,” on pages 26 to 30 of the January 2014 Present Time. Laurie Summers is an RC leader in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. Marsha Saxton is the International Liberation Reference Person for People with Disabilities.
See “An Introduction to Disability Liberation,” on pages 45 to 46 of the January 2014 Present Time. Amy Anderson is an RC leader in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
Contradiction to the oppression

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00