The social model of disability as a case study of social ontology

Ontology is the study of what kinds of entities there are in the world and how they relate to each other. As Effingham (2013, p.1) explains, “You will not find ontologists rummaging around your wardrobe” cataloguing everything they find. Rather, the idea is to conceptualise more broadly the kinds of things there are, including material and abstract “things” like numbers and colours. Social ontology concentrates on entities relevant to social theorising at various levels of explanation from the sub-personal (including unconscious processes like those controlling finger tips on keyboards) to people, their interactions, institutions and beyond.

Debates in social ontology, such as on ontological individualism or emergentism, can be abstract and their relevance hard to grasp. There has even been a case to “rid social sciences of ontology altogether – of all philosophized metaphysics of how the social world is” (Kivinen and Piiroinen, 2007, p.99). This short post tries to make it clearer why it’s important to think about ontology, using an example from disability activism.

In 1975, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, a group of disability activists, published a series of fundamental principles which challenged the ontology of disability:

“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. […] For us as disabled people it is absolutely vital that we get this question of the cause of disability quite straight, because on the answer depends the crucial matter of where we direct our main energies in the struggle for change. We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms.”

Here a distinction is made between impairment and disability. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to say that someone “has a disability”; individual people can have impairments, but it is society which determines whether someone is disabled. Note how the conceptualisation is used to unite people behind one social struggle.

This guide from the activist group Disabled People Against Cuts explains how social barriers cause disability:

“… we live in a society that’s designed by, built for, and used by non disabled people. Because of poor historic attitudes to disabled people […] disabled people were effectively locked away in hospitals, sanatoriums, in care homes or other kinds of institution.

“And that meant that we were excluded from the development of the way our society works, the way our buildings are designed, transport systems, education systems, machines and appliances, leisure activities and the world of work anything really that you care to think about was designed at a time when disabled people weren’t included in the process.

“And that means that all these things don’t work in a way that enables us to use them.

“And the upshot of all that is that in hundreds of different ways, some big, some seemingly small, its difficult for us to take a full part in all kinds of activities that non-disabled people take for granted.

“So we believe that its not our impairments that disable us, it is the social barriers that disable us. Our own impairments we can adapt and/or use aids to overcome, but social barriers are out of our control.”

Whether someone with a particular impairment becomes disabled is also affected by scientific and technological advances. For instance, many people who have a visual impairment wear glasses or contact lenses and wouldn’t consider themselves disabled (see Slorach 2016, p. 37).

A related example is illustrated in this piece on the difference between deaf and Deaf identity:

“To be ‘deaf’ (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don’t feel able to function within the Deaf Community. […] Deaf – with a capital “D” (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) – is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community. […] I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. […] I don’t see it as a disability – there is nothing I feel I cannot do – rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me.”

These conceptualisations of impairment and disability, social barriers, adjustments, aids, deaf and Deaf identity, concern ontology. The debates on these topics occur naturally in social struggles and discussions of social policy, whether or not explicitly articulated as being about ontology. They also have clear implication for how social research is carried out and understood.


Effingham, N. (2013). An introduction to ontology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kivinen, O., & Piiroinen, T. (2007). Sociologizing Metaphysics and Mind: A Pragmatist Point of View on the Methodology of the Social Science. Human Studies, 30, 97–114.

Slorach, R. (2016). A very capitalist condition: a history and politics of disability. London: Bookmarks Publications.

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