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In Memoriam: Mike Oliver | The Nation

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Mike Oliver, emeritus professor of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich in England, died after a short illness on March 3, 2019. He was 73.

A wheelchair user since the age of 17 and a sociologist by training, Oliver played a pioneering role in developing what has come to be known as the social model of disability. His landmark texts include Social Work with Disabled People (1983) and the Politics of Disablement (1990) and (with Colin Barnes) The New Politics of Disablement (2012).

Oliver developed the idea that it is structural barriers such as a lack of wheelchair ramps or a failure to provide sign-language interpreters that impede disabled people, rather than the impairments themselves. In other words, an ableist society is what disables disabled people and keeps them largely unemployed and in poverty.

In every advanced capitalist country, disabled people face tremendous barriers in housing, transportation, and employment. These barriers are so widespread and comprehensive that most individuals do not give them a second thought. By establishing and popularizing what has become known as the impairment-disability distinction, Oliver convinced disabled people to view the discrimination that they face daily as a matter of rights rather than a personal tragedy or medical problem

It is difficult to convey how revolutionary Oliver’s social model of disability was. Individuals who had spent years regarding their daily difficulties as a matter of personal failure were suddenly politicized, as they came to realize that disability was indeed a political issue. Sometimes this theory has been misinterpreted as an attack on the medical profession. But Oliver is very clear that the social model is not anti-medicine where medical intervention is required. Rather, he is against medical imperialism, a mode of thought that regards disabled people as irremediably broken.

Oliver was deeply influenced by class politics and laid the basis for the still-unfinished product of a materialist theory of disablement. He very much believed that the rise of capitalism and the factory system created disability. The requirements of wage labor as the dominant mode of production entailed the segregation and exclusion of disabled workers who could not maintain efficient production standards in an industrial society. In the 20th century, Oliver showed how the state engaged in a neoliberal de-carceration strategy that saw the closure of many institutional settings in Western countries. However, this was done in the context of inadequate services that did not allow disabled people to flourish. What remains to this day are massive and inflexible bureaucratic requirements for eligibility for social assistance. It is not uncommon for individuals to encounter significant difficulty and repeated rejection in navigating a process that is designed to exclude as many people as possible.

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