Mike Oliver

1949 – 2019

This year the disability world mourned the passing of an intellectual giant: Professor Mike Oliver, the first Professor of Disability Studies, died in March following a short illness. Mike Oliver is best known as the person who named and popularised the concept of the ‘social model’ of disability.

The social model of disability states that it is the way society is organised which is disabling, not a person’s impairments or medical diagnosis. In his work he comprehensively explained that society is the “disability” not the individual and goes on to demonstrate that by changing society by removing disabling barriers, “disability” could be minimised to the point of eradication. As Mike once described it, this different approach to disability “changed it from being a medical issue to being a human rights issue.”

Countless change-makers who have shaped the legislation, policies, and world which exists today credit Mike Oliver and the social model as being their ‘lightbulb moment’. 

The initial concept was not Mike Oliver’s own creation: the principles were laid out in a 1976 pamphlet produced by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Discrimination. However, Mike Oliver developed the term and popularised it with his 1983 book Social Work With Disabled People. The book was originally written as course materials for healthcare professionals Mike was training, but it came out at a fortuitous time for the growing disability rights movement. The social model gave campaigners the framework to address disability discrimination, and the concept became a tool to address the underlying assumption that the ‘problem’ is inaccessibility began and ended with disabled bodies.

“I did want to provide an alternative, more optimistic picture that wasn’t about simply seeing disability as purely tragic, disabled people as unemployable and so on,” he said, in an interview not long before his death. “It was about having an optimistic view of what disabled people could achieve if many of the barriers they faced were removed.”

Mike Oliver was born in 1945 in Chatham, Kent. He became disabled in 1962 due to a spinal injury. After a year of rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville hospital he found work as a teacher in Borstal Young Offenders Institution. He enrolled at university only when the legislation changed, making a degree a requirement to continue teaching. Mike began studying sociology at the University of Reading and fell in love with the topic but had to drop out within weeks as the support provision was so inadequate. He instead studied at the University of Kent where he continued to take a master’s degree and then a doctorate. 

Throughout his career Mike bridged the two worlds of activism and academia. He became Professor Emeritus of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich and continued to speak, write and publish with books including Understanding Disability, The Politics of Disablement and The New Politics of Disablement.

Mike is remembered as the father of the social model, the person who founded disability studies as an academic discipline, and the man who ignited a movement and changed the lives of millions of disabled people around the globe.