Understanding Disability: Part 6 – The Radical Model


This is the final part of our Understanding Disability series by Nim Ralph. We have so far learned about the historical models which have affected our understanding of disability today. Some of those models (especially the Medical Model) still widely affect people’s understanding of disability today.

Quick Summary:

Disability is a political construct and we must organise intersectionally against systems of oppression. We should be concerned not with Disability Rights, but with Disability Justice.

Radical model language: disabled person, disability justice, social justice, intersectionality, Crip (as a reclaimed word for personal use), Mad (as a reclaimed word for personal use)

The Radical Model

The Radical Model is, arguably, the next frontier of the Disability Movement. It builds out from the political identity of the Social Model of Disability and argues that we should not distinguish between impairment and disability.

That when, as in the Social Model, we name something an ‘impairment’ we still place a value judgement on something that is thought of as ‘abnormal’. In the Radical Model disability “is not a point of individual or social tragedy but a natural and necessary part of human diversity”.

There are a number of disability activists discussing and developing the model, through organising collectives such as:

…as well as online via blogging and social media forums. The most comprehensive account of the model I’ve read to date is in A.J Withers’ brilliant Disability Politic & Theory.

This model fundamentally shifts from a framework of ‘rights’ to ‘justice’. Where the Social Model was borne of a movement focused on claiming civil rights, the Radical Model is concerned with disability in the framework of social justice; a new movement for Disability Justice.

If we look back through the history of the modern construction of disability and see how it was birthed through the creation of unfit/undesirable classifications in the Eugenics Model – we realise that the oppressions of people because of their race, sexuality, gender, immigration status, class and so on are all born from the same oppressive structures.

That, therefore, justice for all groups is bound up in the same struggle.

A political perspective

The Radical Model also makes clear that disability is not only a social construction, but a political one.

The Social Model attempts to highlight that the construction of disability is a social one – disability doesn’t exist as a problem in the body and isn’t determined by biology. Eugenics socially constructed the labels of fit/unfit and applied them to biological (and social) characteristics.

The Radical Model then takes this a step further and says that the social construction of disability was manifested by groups with power with the aim of maintaining that power – economically and politically – by actively marginalising sections of society.

Disability is not just a social issue, but a political one and a disability movement concerned with justice must therefore be political in response.


Further, this is a model that holds intersectionality at its heart; intersectionality is about recognising that we all live at intersections of multiple identities (race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, gender and so on).

If the disability movement doesn’t recognise and prioritise the experience of disabled people who are also LGBTQ+, women, people of colour, working class, refugees and asylum seekers and so on, then it is not truly a movement concerned with justice.

In other words, campaigning on disability without acknowledging that all oppression is connected and that intersections of identity and experience within the disability movement matter, will mean it is a movement that does not lead to full justice for disabled people or other marginalised/oppressed people.

To place intersectionality at the heart of disability justice is to understand and be able to recognise the way that “normal” is constructed.

What is ‘normal’?

The eugenic categorisation of “fit” has come to mean “normal”.

Many identities and cultures fall into the category of “normal” birthed by eugenicist thinking, including; white, male, non-disabled, straight, cis, British/North American.

When something is ‘normal’ it is seen to be without character, the line of neutrality from where other abnormal characteristics are measured.

If we accept that this is true, we must realise that we measure identities and cultures different to these norms as abnormal.

For example, we might talk about black culture, or gay culture, but rarely is white culture or straight culture acknowledged as an active form of culture.

An intersectional approach makes these normalisations apparent and questions them.

So in contrast to the Social Model, the Radical Model:

  • rejects the idea that bodies have impairments, because an impairment is defined as against the norm
  • believes that, politically, the disability rights movement, in being concerned with disability as a single issue, has accepted the normalisation of other identities and been complicit in wider systems of oppression

To be concerned with justice we must therefore put the voices of disabled people who are people of colour, LGBTQ+, refugees and asylum seekers, women at the front and centre of the movement for disability.


Language in the Radical Model builds on from the Social Model.

Generally disabled people is a preferred term, and disabled people are understood to be people who are externally identified as disabled, as well as people who self-identify as disabled.

Other terms you might hear within Radical Model activists circles are Crip and Mad – words reclaimed from the lexicon of ableism.

Rather than seeing them as negative, the movement has reclaimed them and says proudly “there’s nothing wrong with being a crip or being mad”.

It’s important to note that while these words are being reclaimed, their usage is for self-empowerment and identification and would be experienced as hurtful and offensive if used to refer to the person by someone else.

The Radical Model is still gaining momentum and pushing for change from the edges of the current disability landscape.

In summary its proponents and activists call for a move “away from an equality-based model of sameness and “we are just like you” to a model of disability that embraces difference, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal” on every front. We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.”

This is a call to challenge injustice and oppression that I personally believe to be more relevant than ever in light of recent political upsurges of prejudice and violence across Western Europe and North America, targeting all categories of people deemed Unfit by the fathers of the Eugenics Movement.

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Enjoyed this article? Why not read from the start of the series… and also follow the author – community activist, writer, trainer and former DM team member Nim Ralph – on Twitter.

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