In this contribution to Bulletin 26, Steve Graby reflects on their research into disabled people’s involvement in co-operatives in Britain.
The social model of disability, as originated by disabled activists and ‘organic intellectuals’ in Britain in the 1970s and 80s, and further developed since then through the growth of the academic field of Disability Studies, has at its core the claim that ‘to be disabled’ is not merely to have a body and/or mind that does not function in normative ways, but to be oppressed by modern society—and more specifically by the capitalist economy and wage labour system—in historically and geographically specific ways. These include denial of access to social spaces (both literally through physical barriers such as stairs or narrow doorways, and symbolically through exclusionary attitudes), material deprivation through systems such as out-of-work benefits and social care charging which keep disabled people in poverty, and denial of autonomy in daily living through either the lack or the inappropriately paternalistic provision of assistance services.
Disabled people’s movements and organisations have over the last half-century adopted a variety of strategies, from lobbying politicians and campaigning for legislative changes to public-facing direct action and consciousness-raising through arts and cultural visibility, and have advanced analyses of what is needed to achieve disabled people’s liberation ranging from the reformist to the revolutionary, in response to these social and material conditions. These have often drawn on, but arguably have not managed to have much of an inverse influence on, movements in the broader British ‘left’ with more general membership.
One such broader movement, which I argue has largely untapped potential for disabled people in the UK, is the co-operative movement, whose origins can be traced to the ‘Rochdale pioneers’, who started a movement of consumer-owned food retail societies in the mid-19th century, and which itself contains greatly varied positions and analyses ranging from the conservatively communitarian to the radically anti-capitalist. Co-operatives are not precisely defined in the UK, but in broad terms are businesses that are collectively owned and controlled by their members for their mutual benefit, and run according to co-operative values and principles.
Workers’ co-operatives (businesses, such as a shop or factory, collectively owned by workers) and housing co-operatives (housing collectively owned by residents, ranging in scale from single shared houses to larger co-ops with dozens or even hundreds of separate properties) are arguably the commonest and best-known types of co-ops in the UK. Other forms of co-ops include consumer co-ops, community benefit societies, and multi-stakeholder co-ops.The latter, which have two or more member/owner groups (for example, workers and consumers of services) are a relatively new development in the UK, but much more established in countries like Italy.
Disabled people have been involved more or less incidentally in most if not all of these types of co-ops since their inception. However, a relatively small number of co-ops have been founded with the central purpose of meeting the needs and/or advancing the empowerment of disabled people. Some examples include:
– workers’ co-ops made up largely or wholly of disabled workers which emerged from the closure of government-subsidised ‘sheltered’ workplaces for disabled workers run by organisations such as Remploy;
– multi-stakeholder co-ops providing social services for disabled people, jointly owned by service users and workers providing those services, such as personal assistance and sign language interpretation;
– housing co-ops focused on meeting disabled people’s housing access needs.
While some connections have previously been made between co-ops and progressive tendencies in welfare policy that aligned with disabled people’s movements (see for example Beresford on UK social policy and Warren on the influence of Franco Basaglia’s de-institutionalisation movement on co-ops in Italy), and researchers in Disability Studies have examined specific types of co-ops and their potential to improve services for disabled people, my present ISRF-funded research is, to my knowledge, the first attempt to comprehensively look at disabled people’s involvement in co-operatives of all types in the UK.
My research includes both case studies of some co-ops with disabled people and their needs at the core of their purpose, and interviews with disabled people who are or have been members of co-ops of any kind (in practice, the great majority of these were members of housing and/or workers’ co-ops). Its initial findings include notable synergies between the principles and practices of co-ops and disabled people’s movements, and many highly positive experiences of co-ops being powerful enabling tools in disabled participants’ lives, but also some significant experiences of exclusionary attitudes and disabling barriers within both individual co-ops and wider co-operative movement circles.
Some participants were or had been involved in disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) as well as co-ops, while others had had little or no contact with DPOs and knew relatively little about them. However, there was general consensus that the values of co-ops ‘fitted’ with those of the Disabled People’s Movement. Interestingly, for some participants who had been involved in both DPOs and co-ops, shared values and connections between the two did not seem evident until prompted by me as interviewer, while for others there was a clear and obvious connection.
Shared values identified by participants included: inclusivity, egalitarianism and, as one participant said, “considering everyone’s contribution to be important”; an organising principle of collective self-interest and ownership/leadership by those directly involved in an experience or activity (as the classic Disabled People’s Movement slogan puts it: ‘nothing about us without us’); and ‘bottom-up’ mutual aid as opposed to the ‘top-down’ paternalistic practices of government and charities. Co-ops were also seen, by those participants who had positive experiences of them, as exemplifying the social model by enabling living and/or working environments to be changed to fit people, rather than people being forced to fit into whatever inflexible environments were available.
A few participants reported examples of direct connection or collaboration between co-ops and DPOs (such as a DPO using the services of a media workers’ co-op for publicity materials), but most felt that there was relatively little communication or interaction between the co-operative and disabled people’s movements in their experience, though there was general agreement that there should be more.
Some, but not all, participants already had a well-developed anti-capitalist analysis, informed by their experiences as people disabled by capitalist society, which directly led to their choice to join (or to start—this was predictably more common among founder members) co-ops. Others had come to be involved in co-ops coincidentally, through circumstances such as being in need of accessible housing and happening to hear about a vacancy in a housing co-op, but had become enthusiastic about co-ops and co-operative values through their experience.
Participants compared co-operative housing favourably to both privately rented and more ‘mainstream’ (e.g. local authority) social housing. Co-operative housing, while sometimes more expensive than mainstream social housing, was for most participants significantly cheaper than private market rents—a major issue with regard to housing security for disabled people given that most have substantially lower incomes than non-disabled people. Co-operative housing was also more secure in terms of not being at risk of eviction, and a significant benefit for many disabled people was the ability to make changes to their homes that private landlords would not permit—ranging from choosing colours to paint the walls in a student housing co-op to accommodate an autistic member’s sensory access needs, to building a ramp to the front door of a shared-house co-op to give a member who used a mobility scooter full access.
Compared to mainstream social housing, participants described their experience of housing co-ops as more understanding of members’ access needs and willing to make adaptations to housing to meet them, more responsive to requests for repairs or adaptations, and in some (though not all) cases quicker to find people appropriate housing, with less time on waiting lists. However, not all participants had similarly positive experiences.
Rosie, a neurodivergent single parent, eventually transferred from a flat within a co-op to local authority social housing after repeated experiences of exclusion from decision-making structures within the co-op, which she attributed to disablist attitudes and internal culture. This particular co-op placed a high emphasis on all members actively participating and putting in hours of unpaid work, with penalties for not doing so, something which came from a culture of ‘do-it-yourself’ activism and direct democracy, but which failed to acknowledge limits on individuals’ capacity (whether caused directly by their impairments or coming from the added burden of negotiating barriers and social oppression on a daily basis), and inadvertently replicated capitalist norms of work as conferring the only valid membership of community (for a disabled critique of this, see Abberley).
Other aspects of co-op culture that several participants found problematic, particularly in smaller housing co-ops, included a focus on environmentalism and ‘ethical’ consumption practices that could disregard disabled people’s access needs, for example for easier-to-prepare food, higher indoor temperatures in winter, or simply for more living space per person.
Several participants talked about the Radical Routes network—a secondary co-op of (primarily smaller housing) co-ops committed to working for radical social change, which provides funding and practical support to groups setting up co-ops which share its radically anti-capitalist and environmentalist principles—as inaccessible in its organisational practices and problematic to negotiate for many disabled people.
Radical Routes organises itself through, and requires attendance from member co-ops at, large quarterly in-person gatherings, involving camping in summer and use of large indoor spaces with communal sleeping space in winter, which present significant access difficulties to many disabled people for many different reasons. Another problematic aspect of the network for many disabled co-operators is the ‘15-hour rule’—a requirement for all members of Radical Routes co-ops to commit themselves to at least 15 hours per week of unpaid work for radical social change. While this has arguably never really been enforced, it can be seen as exclusionary towards disabled people who may not (always or ever) have capacity for this level of contribution.
The communal style of living in small housing co-ops like those typically found in the Radical Routes network could be a double-edged sword for disabled and/or neurodivergent people. Some struggled with the intensity of constant interaction (such as eating communal meals every day), expectations of capacity to contribute ‘equally’ to household chores, and potential for interpersonal conflicts. However, for some the informal support with access and assistance needs from other co-op members was a major positive. For some participants this aspect of shared social reproduction, including meeting of emotional needs for company and human interaction (particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic) was more important to them than co-operative ownership of the housing, and was a major (sometimes the primary) factor in their choice to join a housing co-op.
Disabled members of workers’ co-ops reported that the ability to collectively set their own working practices was a major factor in making work within co-ops far more accessible for them than working for other employers. In some co-ops, for example, members could choose to work from home rather than in a sensorily overloading office environment, to set their own hours at times that could accommodate fluctuating fatigue or unconventional sleeping patterns, or to divide up work tasks in ways that fit with individual workers’ strengths and limitations, all of which might not have been allowed within the hierarchical structures of other businesses. Some participants had founded workers’ co-ops specifically in response to barriers (often largely attitudinal) to getting other forms of paid work.
However, as with housing co-ops, some participants found disabling barriers and lack of understanding of their access needs within workers’ co-ops. Erica, a member of a large warehouse-based workers’ co-op, found that an ideology of ‘every member being able to do every job’ resulted in an unwillingness to provide adjustments for her and an expectation of being capable of heavy physical work, despite this not being required for her particular role within the co-op. Erica thought this may have been an unintended consequence of consciously opposing the typical workplace hierarchy of ‘office’ jobs being privileged over ‘manual labour’ jobs.
With an ongoing pandemic, a rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis, and the looming threat of devastating climate change—all of which disproportionately harm disabled people, among other groups marginalised by capitalist society—co-ops are a potential tool (among many) for local-scale mitigation of the worst of these conditions, from which disabled people can benefit in real and concrete ways. Co-ops can also point towards different ways of structuring society, based on principles of equity, solidarity and inclusion, in which people who are born with or acquire impairments could be far less disabled than they are today.
However, all tools have their limitations, and it is necessary to recognise that co-ops cannot provide complete solutions to disablement. Personal assistance co-ops like those which exist in countries like Sweden, which I have elsewhere argued have potential for implementation in the UK, cannot directly change the overall underfunding of social services, for example. As experiences of participants like Rosie and Erica show, changes in awareness and attitudes, and sometimes deeper ideological change, may be needed for some co-ops to be fully inclusive of disabled members.
The potential of co-ops to provide radical, prefigurative alternatives to capitalist (and disablist) ways of working and living is open to debate, with some on the left characterising them as inevitably co-opted into capitalist ideologies of entrepreneurship and self-exploitation. This parallels arguments about the role of disabled people’s organisations. However, in workers’ co-ops in particular, the micro-political elements of workplace democracy and collective self-management, particularly with regard to hiring practices, may make all the difference to whether some disabled people have access to paid work at all.
While the scale or level at which co-ops can affect the disabling conditions of present-day society is therefore debatable, it is undeniable that they can be concretely useful for disabled (and otherwise marginalised) people in achieving liveable day-to-day conditions, and therefore providing a foundation on which to build strategies for deeper transformations. They can, and I argue should, therefore be viewed as one important element in a broader, multi-faceted strategy of struggle for disabled people’s liberation. Further research can play a role in determining this, but only if combined with and directed towards practical action, such as establishing new co-ops that directly meet disabled people’s needs, and/or finding ways to overcome disabling barriers that still remain within existing co-ops.
 B. Gleeson, Geographies of disability (London 1999: Routledge); C. Thomas, Female forms: Experiencing and understanding disability (Buckingham 1999: Open University Press); C. Thomas, Sociologies of disability and illness: Contested ideas in disability studies and medical sociology (London 2007: Red Globe Press).
 M. Berghs, T. Chataika, Y. El-Lahib, and K. Dube (eds.), The Routledge handbook of disability activism (Abingdon 2019: Routledge).
 J. Birchall, People-centred businesses: Co-operatives, mutuals and the idea of membership (Basingstoke 2011: Palgrave Macmillan).
 S. Gradin, ‘Radical Routes and Alternative Avenues: How Cooperatives Can Be Non-capitalist’, Review of Radical Political Economics 47, no.2 (2015): 141–158; International Co-operative Alliance, Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles (Brussels 2016: International Co-operative Alliance), https://www.ica.coop/en/media/library/research-and-reviews/the-guidance-notes-on-the-co-operative-principles.
 P. Conaty, Social Co-operatives: A Democratic Co-production Agenda for Care Services in the UK (Manchester 2014: Co-operatives UK).
 P. Beresford, All our welfare: Towards participatory social policy (Bristol 2016: Policy Press).
 E.g. A. Roulstone and S.K. Hwang, ‘Disabled people, choices and collective organisation: Examining the potential of cooperatives in future social support’, Disability & Society 30, no. 6 (2015): 849–864.
 P. Abberley, ‘Work, Disability and European Social Theory’, in: C. Barnes, L. Barton and M. Oliver (eds.), Disability Studies Today (Cambridge 2002: Polity Press): 120–138.
 See also D. Fenney, ‘Ableism and Disablism in the UK Environmental Movement’, Environmental Values 26, no. 4 (2017): 503–522.
 Gradin, ‘Radical Routes and Alternative Avenues’.
 S. Graby, ‘Personal assistance Co-operatives: Possibilities and pitfalls of alternative models of independent living’, Journal of Co-Operative Studies 54, no. 3 (2021): 33–44.
 M. Sandoval, ‘What would Rosa do? Co-operatives and radical politics’, Soundings 63 (2016): 98–111.
 See for example C. Barnes, ‘The Disabled Peoples’ Movement and its Future’, Ars Vivendi Journal 5 (2013): 2–7.
Steve Graby is an independent scholar-activist in the field of Disability Studies and the Disabled People’s Movement. Their PhD thesis, ‘Personal Assistance: The Challenge of Autonomy’ focused on the working relationship between disabled people and their directly employed personal assistants, in the context of critical analysis from the Disabled People’s Movement and beyond of waged work, capitalism and neoliberal ableism. For more on their work, see their website.