David Colley explains the influence of ‘Social Model thinking’ on his life


Dave Lupton aka Crippen – disabled cartoonist, has been following conversations about the social model of disability, which seems to have come in for some criticism. In the first of a series of interviews with members of the disability arts community he talks to disabled activist David Colley about his first encounters with the social model understanding of disability.

cartoon of a figure in a heelchair being handed a 'kettle-tipper'

David Colley ‘kettle tipper’ cartoon

David Colley responds:

“I always tell people that discovering the Social Model of Disability saved my life and I really do think it did.

I was in my mid-20s, struggling with new impairments, and surrounded only by medical-model messages. Well-meaning and loving friends would repeat the same advice: You have to fight it and you mustn’t give in, your life is over if you can’t be normal, being gay AND disabled will be too difficult for people to deal with, and you must pursue a cure at all cost.

So, it was fair to say I was sinking under the weight of it all. It did feel like the life I knew and loved was over and I was no longer free to do as I wanted. I couldn’t fight my own body. How would you even do that? Was trying to find assistance, help, support or equipment ‘giving in’?

Waiting for a cure didn’t help me get my shopping in for the week, and I could hardly go back in the closet just to make me less of an ‘Equality Issues Pick n Mix’. Social services were less than useful. I didn’t even get a kettle-tipper – the disability equivalent of a Blue Peter badge!

Then one weekend at a trades union conference, I stumbled upon the disabled members’ caucus. I sneaked in the back, in a fog of self-consciousness, not really identifying as a disabled person. But I left feeling empowered and alive again.

Everyone, no matter their circumstances, no matter the impairment, were all talking about the same issues I was facing:

  • people dismissing your value,
  • the desire by professionals to only look at your medical needs,
  • other people brushing aside your need for independent living now rather than the promise of a cure later,
  • how it’s not your body that’s the problem, it’s the lack of access that prevents you doing what you want
  • that YOU are fine as you are
  • that we are a community and not divided by impairment
  • that lack of access for us is downright discrimination

But most of all, people were joking and laughing about issues I could completely relate to.

The social model of disability completely changed the way I saw myself and how I fit into society. I made such wonderful friends who I learned so much from. It wasn’t just a practical and political shift in my thinking, it was a deeply personal shift. I didn’t just think, but actually felt, that my body wasn’t the problem and that I wasn’t the problem.

So, I stopped apologising for my access needs and began looking for what I needed in order to live life to the full again. And I got support from my new friends in getting this.

With my needs finally met, I could continue to work, and went on to have great fun working for organisations run by and for disabled people. I discovered disability arts, Deaf comedy, self-organisation and how to organise events that really were working hard to be inclusive and accessible.

Oh, and thanks to the Direct Action Network (DAN), I even got a date while handcuffed to a train. What more could you want from a civil rights movement?!”

Description of cartoon for those using screen reading software

A caricature of wheelchair user David Colley is being presented with a kettle tipper by a white male in a suit. Standing alongside of them is a black vicar and an older women typifying a charity worker. The suited male is saying to David: “And by presenting you with this kettle tipper you are now officially disabled!” David has a thought bubble coming from his head which says: “Yippee!”