Posted on 12 March 2024 in activism, bulletin, disability, social movements

Learning from and with the Disabled People’s Movement

Fran Amery and Rebecca Yeo report on a workshop bringing together activists from the Disabled people’s movement with activists from other sectors. 


Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Bath


Research Fellow, University of Exeter

Image Credit: Disability Murals.

Social movements are frequently beset by segregation and failure to learn from one another’s experiences, insights, and achievements. This segregation can stem from concerns such as funding constraints or from the belief that limited time and energy should be focussed on any number of current urgent campaigns. However legitimate these concerns may be, the result is to create silos of knowledge and experience which can hinder capacity to address common root causes, create unhelpful competition for resources, and risk replicating or even undermining the work of allies. We therefore set out to investigate how the barriers to collaboration can be overcome and how social movements can learn from one another. 

Research on social movements has identified conditions in which different activist groups are able to collaborate and form coalitions. Coalitions are generally formed between groups that have shared social ties and histories of interaction as well as shared ideologies. It is less common for intersectional coalitions to develop between and across subordinated groups and their social justice movements. We are keen to improve understanding of how movements learn, or can learn, from each others’ experiences and collective memories. In particular, we are interested in the lessons that other social movements might learn from the Disabled people’s movement. We challenge the exceptionalism often witnessed around disability, whereby if any action is taken to include Disabled people it is framed as if an act of benevolence rather than a means of including relevant insights and experiences. We are keen to develop ways of bringing activists from the Disabled people’s movement together with people involved in other social justice movements, to improve understanding of the root causes of different struggles and how collaboration could be more effective. Activists can develop cross-movement solidarity by, for example, working together on shared goals, developing shared framing, and including other marginalised groups on an equal footing.

We are particularly interested in what lessons could be drawn from the original social model of disability developed by Disabled people in the 1970s and 1980s. The social model was developed to challenge individualised and medicalised understandings of disability. It asserts that people with impairments are disabled by systemic barriers and inequalities which are socially constructed and therefore changeable. If people are valued according to their contribution to a capitalist economy, then people with many forms of impairments will always be undervalued. The original social model was therefore explicitly anti-capitalist. This framework shifted the attention of activists to the need for collective responsibility in achieving structural change. The problems the social model was developed to address – the discriminatory and disabling impacts of capitalist social structures—are not however unique to disability but can be observed across various axes of discrimination and oppression.

To begin to explore these issues, we organised a pilot workshop which brought together activists from the Disabled people’s movement with those focussed on action against racism, violence against women, austerity, and the restrictions of the asylum system. The workshop sought to uncover and name the differences between groups and the barriers to working together, as well as to assist participants to articulate shared values and agendas. We conducted the workshop in accordance with principles and methods from the Disabled people’s movement, ensuring access and communication needs were addressed. 

During the workshop, people created ‘problem trees’ to convey the causes and symptoms of the issues that they are working to address (figure 1). The ‘roots’ of the trees represented the causes of the problems and the ‘branches’ represented the symptoms or the impact. This allowed people from each sector to illustrate the key issues they are addressing and to introduce discussion of the commonalities and differences.

Figure 1: The Racism problem tree. Image by the authors.

People experiencing different forms of social inequalities referred to the negative impact on physical and mental health. This is in accordance with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work regarding the impact of inequality at a societal and an individual level. They found that poor health outcomes including mental distress are more prevalent in more unequal societies. The Disabled people’s movement has highlighted that poor health outcomes have a disabling effect in societies in which access needs are not considered and in which economic contribution is an assumed indicator of human value.  

Figure 2: What do we have in common? Image by the authors.

Despite lack of routine interaction, there were significant commonalities in what people in different social movements perceive as the core problems (figure 2). These included the inequalities in power and resources stemming from capitalism and colonialism. These inequalities manifest in different forms including access to healthcare, housing and education. People also spoke of common barriers in addressing these problems, such as corrupt media resulting in lack of public awareness, activists being spread too thin focussing on the multiple symptoms of injustice, and increasing restrictions on protest rights. 

People involved in the workshop referred to improved morale from sharing ideas and learning from people from different backgrounds who are experiencing similar problems. According to one Disabled activist, the workshop ‘gives us esteem in who we are and the social value of our contribution’. An activist in the asylum system spoke of the value of honest discussion ‘about obstacles encountered and lessons learned’. A union organiser found the workshop important to help raise awareness of the similarities in the root causes of so many struggles.

It is clear from the workshop that segregated methods of organising hinder shared learning and serve to further isolate those with intersecting experiences of marginalisation. We are now seeking to develop new projects which enable people involved in different social movements to develop ways of sharing knowledge and experiences across sectors. This could contribute to building a broader network of solidarity and resistance through which to build more effective alternatives to current injustices. 


Fran Amery is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Bath. Her research addresses contemporary struggles around gender and LGBTQ+ equality, with a particular interest in anti-gender campaigns, including organised transphobia and movements against reproductive rights. She is the author of Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: The Changing Politics of Abortion in Britain.


Rebecca Yeo is an activist and academic who explores the relevance of insights and achievements of the Disabled people’s movement for wider social justice movements. She is currently working on the Sensing Climate project, at the University of Exeter, investigating Disabled people’s priorities in relation to the climate emergency. Her book Disabling Migration Controls will be published by Routledge later this year.