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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Why we need the Social Model: Disability Politics in Adult Learning and Education

by Jana Ahlers
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR

Why We Need the Social Model: Disability Politics in Adult Learning and Education


Who comes to mind when you think about inclusive social change in adult education?

The migrant, the socio-economically disadvantaged or the person struggling with literacy? What are the barriers to their inclusion? We are likely to argue for prejudice, inequality and/or structural discrimination. Now, let’s think about the older lady in her wheelchair. What are her barriers to inclusion? A ramp, a wheelchair, an accessible bathroom or a lift to access the upper floors for class?

While we think about inclusion in terms of structural social issues in the first examples, inclusion for people with disabilities often ends at physical barriers, such as the ubiquitous stairs. We remain in a mindset that associates the barriers with the individual rather than with the social structures that cause the exclusion. We are occupied with the ramp, but what really matters are the discriminatory attitudes towards the older lady in her wheelchair. Striving for a society that aims at fairness and sustainability necessities the social model of disability. It requires educators to rethink how we discriminate against people with impairments and how we can create educational structures that are inclusive – to all learners.


Why we need the social model?

Let’s start by thinking terminology - remembering that language can be a tool of oppression. What is the opposite of disabled…? Abled you might think. Try to exchange abled with enabled – and voilà, the structural elements come to light. While people with special needs are systematically [dis]abled by society, able-bodied citizens are privileged because society [en]ables their full participation. People have impairments, but it is the barriers to access the world that [dis]able them. Adjusting our language gives us a start into defining what scholars and activists call the social model of disability. The social model posits that rather than disability being located as something wrong inside an individual’s body, people are actually disabled by an “ableist” society.

"Ableism is disability oppression, a pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion of people with disabilities. Like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, ableism operates on individual, institutional, and cultural levels to privilege temporarily able-bodied people and disadvantage people with disabilities“ (Griffin, Peters, and Smith, 2007, p. 335).


Why the disability discourse must be political

Exclusion based on prejudice or structural discrimination is unjust in any area of oppression. People with disabilities have historically been discriminated against, separated, shut away, controlled and disposed of. For many years they had no access to education. Today, participation in (adult) education is theoretically possible, yet continues to be disabled by socio-structural barriers. The definition of ableism shows us how the individual, institutional and cultural forms of discrimination are intertwined and hence, hinder full participation on multiple levels. Thinking about adult education, discrimination does not only surface in inter-personal prejudice in the classroom but is also informed by cultural norms and institutional structures that manifests the discrimination.

On a policy level, a recent analysis shows that “policies constitute and govern disabled persons as a group who do not fulfil the premises set for the lifelong learner” (Kauppila et al., 2018). No matter what the premises set for the “adequate” lifelong learner constitute, striving for education for all – cannot create policy that is limited to one identity group. Therefore, instead of centering around the individual, inclusive education policy should be directed at societal arrangements (Simons & Masschelein, 2015).


Ability is NOT a choice

In public advertisement, on social media and around our everyday life it is often proclaimed that people are “able” to choose their body, by working on it and transforming it. Despite the image, we have to realize that ability is not a choice. The disabled body is not something to overcome. In our education it is necessary to challenge the “normal body” as the work[able] entity, defined by its ability to work and perform on the market (Mitchell & Snyder, 2015; Simons & Masschelein, 2015).

Non-formal adult education can contribute to exactly that. Emphasizing life skills and civic education before employability, non-formal education can challenge the inherent ableist structures. Moving away or becoming more critical of the interaction between body and labour however, is not everything. Education practice in itself would generally benefit from more awareness about ableism and ways to dismantle discriminatory structures. Often learners with disabilities are viewed as if they have something that needs to be pitied, improved or even fixed. Wendy Lu, a disabled writer, challenges these “cure-based narratives” and argues that “disabled bodies don’t need to be fixed, rather, we need a cure for ableism” (Lu, 2019).


What does this mean for adult learning and education?

Adult educators are an essential part of the education landscape. They shape the opinions and attitudes of many and can therefore make an immediate difference in their community. Previous research has shown that student interaction with instructors is one of the factors related to the success of students with disabilities (Dallas, Sprong, & Upton, 2014; Hong, 2015).


What can you do in your educational institution?

“Disabled by society’s attitudes.” In an encounter with a person with disabilities you don’t need to know what their impairments are– this medicalises them – but instead, you need to know what their access requirements are. In your professional and personal life, this perspective change makes a difference.

A concrete example for an approach that intends to create barrier free instruction is Universal Design. The initial principles of Universal Design incorporated equitable use, flexibility in use, simple intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use (Mace et. al. 1997). Later Universal Learning Design was developed which provides multiple means of representation, action, expression and engagement (Dallas, Sprong, & Upton, 2014). Educators therewith use a variety of ways to motivate students, communicate course content in various formats and use various types of assessment, if that is applicable (Rose, Meyer, 2014). Setting up educational practice according to Universal Design requires more time and planning and shift in expectations and collaboration.

In many countries’ adult education for people with disability takes place in special schools. As we take the shift from segregated, to integrated and now inclusive education in the formal sector – the non-formal sector has its way to go. Using the ramp as a conversation starter to dive into the necessary engagement with inclusive education for all, is a first step into the right direction. Universal Design highlights only one pathway into a world where education is a right and not a privilege.


This article in based on a conversation and with two disability justice activists, who prefer to stay anonymous.

Movie recommendation: Crip Camp (2020) Disability justice activism in the United States.



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Evans, Dominick (2020)
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Lu, Wendy (2019) „Disabled people don’t need to be fixed” Opendemocracy 19 March, 2019 
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