The disability movement is mourning the death of one of its pioneers, an academic and anti-apartheid campaigner whose work “transformed people’s understanding of disability” and laid the basis for what became known as the “social model”.
Vic Finkelstein’s ideas influenced a generation of disabled activists to join what he described as a struggle against oppression.
Finkelstein wrote about how being imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities in his native South Africa in the 1960s helped influence his understanding of disability.
The only time that things were ever made accessible for him, he said, was when he was in jail, adding: “Somehow, when the state has a need it does make things accessible!”
After becoming disabled following a pole vaulting accident as a teenager, he had come to believe that disabled people “face the most prevalent, world-wide, persistent, resistant to change and endemic form of apartheid, to put it mildly, of any human group throughout the world”.
After leaving South Africa in 1968, he came to Britain as a refugee and linked up over the next few years with members of its youthful disability movement, meeting activists such as Ken and Maggie Davis, Paul and Judy Hunt, and Sian Vasey.
In 1972, Finkelstein helped found the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) with Paul Hunt, who had spent much of his life in Leonard Cheshire residential homes and campaigned against institutional discrimination.
UPIAS took what was then seen as a radical new approach, arguing that the main issue facing disabled people was their oppression by society, rather than seeing disability as “a personal tragedy”.
Finkelstein’s redefinition of the fundamental principles of disability was later described by the disabled academic Mike Oliver as “the social model of disability”, the key to understanding disabled people’s oppression.
What was “paramount”, Finklestein wrote later, was “our focus on the need to change the disabling society rather than make us fit for society”. He and his fellow UPIAS members were seen as “extremists” by the established disability charities.
Vasey, then in her early 20s, and now director of Ealing Centre for Independent Living, says she had been “in awe” of Finkelstein, who was “a force to be reckoned with”.
She says he made a “huge” contribution to the disability movement. “He changed how we think about disability. He challenged you to be more radical and didn’t tolerate anything that wasn’t.”
In 1975, Finkelstein helped influence the thinking behind Link, a new television programme about disability, and wrote a script for a cartoon, Very Crossroads, which ran on the show for a year and illustrated how attitudes and the environment create disability, rather than people’s impairments.
“Overcoming apartheid,” he would write later, “involved turning the racist world upside down and in my story disabled people living in an apartheid-like village become the dominant group, design the social and physical environment exclusively for themselves and then oppress people who deviate from themselves.”
Rosalie (now Baroness) Wilkins, who presented Link, says Finkelstein made a “huge” contribution to the disability movement.
She says: “It feels like the end of an era with his death. He was the person who first gave life to the idea of the social model. He was a very compassionate man but a very tough one and a fantastic family man.”
Finkelstein also played a major part in setting up the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) and was its first chair, studied psychology and teaching, taught on the Open University’s (OU) ground-breaking disability studies course, and later helped set up the London Disability Arts Forum.
In 1981, he represented Britain at the first world congress of Disabled People’s International in Singapore and was elected onto its world council.
He also helped set up Disabled People Against Apartheid, and campaigned successfully for the exclusion of the South African team from the Stoke Mandeville games for disabled athletes, at a time when the country was already barred from mainstream international sport.
Professor Jan Walmsley, a former OU colleague, says Finkelstein had “an enormously powerful influence not only on the way the OU taught and continues to teach in health and social care, but also on UK disability policy”, including the Disability Discrimination Acts and the personalisation agenda, and put the OU “at the forefront of teaching and thinking about disability”.
She adds: “As a colleague he was enormously generous to me, encouraging me in every conceivable way to develop my ideas, writing and research. [He was] a great fighter for what he believed in.”
After leaving the OU in 1994, Finkelstein was invited by Professor Colin Barnes to become a senior visiting lecturer at the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, and continued to be involved with the centre until his retirement in 2008.
Barnes, another hugely influential figure in the movement, had first written to Finkelstein in the early 1980s as part of his research into disability discrimination.
He was sent a copy of Finkelstein’s Attitudes and Disabled People, which explained clearly “why disabled people are discriminated against in Britain”.
He says: “His work has influenced everything I have done ever since. He was there at the very beginning. He transformed people’s understanding of disability.”
He says that, thanks to Finkelstein’s work, “every country in the world now recognises that disability is a political issue”.
Barnes is another who points to his influence on UK disability discrimination legislation, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with tributes to Finkelstein and his work coming from disabled activists, writers and academics across the world, including Japan, South Africa, the US and Canada.
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, described after hearing of Finkelstein’s death how she heard him speak at a conference 25 years ago.
She wrote on her organisation’s website how hearing him talk about how “people with impairments are disabled by society, that disabled people should control their own organisations and develop their own culture… instantly illuminated” the experiences she had had since acquiring an impairment.
She said: “Instead of blaming myself for not trying hard enough to fit in with the ‘able-bodied’ world, I realised that it was society that had failed to accommodate the reality of people with impairments.”
She said Finkelstein was a “great man with an extraordinary vision”, and added: “Championing the social model of disability has been one of the main driving forces in my life; to have learned about it directly from the person who devised it was a huge honour and privilege.”
Colin Barnes admits that he was initially “in awe” of Finkelstein, and found him “very intimidating”.
But he adds: “As I got to know him, he was a very warm-hearted human being. The more you got to know him, about him, the more you realised he was a truly special individual.
“There is no way you could not look up to Vic Finkelstein, for his clarity of thought, his wisdom, his humanity. In many respects, we all stand in the shadow of Vic Finkelstein.”
8 December 2011