Disability as Anti-Systemic Superpowers which will consider different ways that a future without the oppression and disavowed of non-able-bodied people could be radically empowering

Presented at the Images of Tommorrow conference
Held at Goldsmith University, London
Date: Sunday, 2 June 2017
By Michelle Daley


Michelle Daley delivering her speech


I first want to thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference. I have been asked to discuss “Disability as Anti-Systemic Superpowers which will consider different ways that a future without the oppression and disavowed of non-able-bodied people could be radically empowering”.

My intention is to answer this question through my speech. I will start by saying that I reject the term “able bodied”. I say this because it refers to the physical attributes of a person as being perfect, this is problematic because what happens for those people like myself that do not fit into this narrative? I will elaborate further on this point later.

Also mutably connected to the term able bodied is image. We live in a society that is fixated on our representation and being able to conform to standards and levels to measure our attainment and acceptance within society. The disturbing point here is the mass of people are conditioned to think and behave like robots. They buy into ideas and thoughts that are usually influenced by people in positions of power and positions of privileged that are able to suggest what is and what is not acceptable standards, as the image for our today and tomorrow. Therefore, systems are created which tells people what to and what not to value giving permission to deny any responsibility to accept discriminatory behaviours. We see how the robotic behaviour manifests itself. It’s how we are portrayed, other people's actions and how others speak about us, this is often done in a specific way – usually negative and dehumanise the individual.  Here's examples of how others and society define me and other disabled people’s presence:

  • remain childlike
  • cannot make a good mother / father
  • cannot make a good employee
  • will always need to be cared for / cared for person
  • need specialist services which are based on segregation and disconnection

I want to put some context to our conversation so when we talk about a Disabled Person / People what do we mean? What am I actually talking about?

When we discuss the experience of Disabled People it is often medicalised and linked to specialist services. I will refer to Vic Finkeslstein and Dr Ossie Stuart (cited in Hales, G 1995, p.170) who I think articulates this point well. It is the Social Model of Disability that helps disabled people to better understand their realities.  Finkeslstein and Stuart say that the Social Model of Disability “incorporates a historic interpretation of the situation facing disabled people. It suggests that people with physical and mental impairments can have satisfying life-styles as disabled people if the focus of attention is shifted towards the removal of disabling barriers rather than concentrating only on the rehabilitation of disabled individuals…”  

So, in this context I want to reflect back on the term ‘abled bodied’ and make the point here to show how the use of the word helps to reinforce oppressive and offensive behaviour. It creates an ideology to suggest that some bodies are broken and useless (not able bodied). If it was not for these beliefs, then society may have been created with infrastructures that takes into account our differences and the need to embed equality and justice in all that we do.

I guess you have figured by now that the preferred term is non-disabled people. Non-disabled people are without an impairment and would not be effected by disabling barriers. For example, a deaf person wanting to attend and access this conference today would need to have a sign language interpreter. For a hearing person they would not be prevented from attending this conference if a sign language interpreter was not made available. This is what makes the person non-disabled person as opposed to abled bodied.

It was from the teaching of the Social Model that I learnt about ableism and how the world is designed and structured to help non-disabled people. In order to help us understand ableism, I want us to reflect on the labour market and look at jobs that can be done without formal qualifications. I have asked the question, is it ok that non-disabled people can be employed to work without no formal qualifications? Then why can't disabled people get the equivalent job. Society helps to create job opportunities for non-disabled people but not for disabled people. This is ableism! It is also about the images we hold about disabled people as being non-productive and not valued. I ask another question, who is taking responsibility to help create opportunities for disabled people if the society is geared towards helping non-disabled people?

In fact, when I first became aware of the Social Model it was a shift in consciousness. I had undergone a paradigm shift in my thinking and understanding about systems, structures, power and privilege which can be used to control and determine Disabled Peoples opportunities. However, the Social Model of Disability fell short of addressing the issues around gender, race and so on. This only extended the oppression and discrimination I and many other disabled people would experience. I continued to be forced into a position to create a hierarchy based on my different identities – how is this possible? This is proof that disabled people are viewed as a homogenous group which ignores our multiple identities. We only need to look at the way social care assessments are carried out and the way service provisions are offered as they often do not address people’s individual cultural needs.

While we accept that some of these issues are not only limited to black disabled people and disabled People of Colour (POC), our different identities all contribute to the way we access service provisions, form relationships, employment opportunities, education achievement, social networks and community event. The great Nasa Begum, Millie Hill and Andy Stevens co-wrote (1994) the book titled Reflections: The views of Black Disabled People on their Lives and Community Care. They brought to the forefront the issues experienced by Black Disabled People living in Britain – this book remains relevant today.

What Kimberele Williams (New Statesman, 2014) theory on intersectionality and Patricia Hill Collins (2000) theory on the matrix of domination did for me was to crystallised how I understood my impairment, race and gender as well as the way systems are designed and organised to oppress and make our different intersects invisible and taking away the human aspects of us. Often I would be placed in situations and spaces and imposed ideas that where developed for white middle class people. This is very common particularly in decision making and policy work where the ideas developed are in the interest of people in positions of power and positions of privilege.

This then forced me to reflect on the work produced around equality and question who was / who is it for?  It even makes me think about the years of work that I have contributed to the equality agenda. I do not believe that it has reached many of the Black, Asian and ethnic minority organisations and local communities they are not encouraged or pursued to address equality issues. The reality is Black disabled people and disabled People of Colour are more likely to be disconnected from cultural social networks, cultural events and businesses as they are usually hosted in inaccessible venues and access needs are not considered.

It is evident that equality work has not effectively reached these communities; they are not able to effectively access or maintain their knowledge about any developments in the area of equality. I believe there is not enough emphasis and interest towards Black, Asian and ethnic minority organisations and local communities to address the level of inequality. But also there is very little interest in the contributions made by Black disabled people and disabled People of Colour to the work of equality. We have to ask ourselves – why is this?

This creates real issues as Black disabled people and disabled People of Colour are less likely to connect with people who share similar interests, create social networks, be informed and, consequently, experience increased isolation. It is not surprising that Black disabled people and disabled People of Colour are underrepresented in all areas of life and viewed as invisible. This makes it difficult for people to speak out to any of the movements or networks about the inequality in fear that they will be further ostracised. It is these types of conditions that drive people away but the messages society portrays is to attach the negative label as “hard to reach groups”.

I recognise that the struggle for Black disabled people and disabled People of Colour is much more difficult but it is important the we remain dedicated and committed to contributing to justice and equality work. We have to continue to make inroad and dismantle the barriers of oppression that result in our discrimination.

It was through the struggles that campaigners such as Nassa Begum, Millie Hill and Mary Prince taught me that I can imagine and should have the strength to create dreams because every success has come from the creation which stemmed from a dream. And we should dream that there will be a day our different intersectionality will not be made invisible. There will be a day that the level of our dependency on others for assistance will not render us as people who are helpless and a burden. There will be a day when ideas and standards will not be imposed to create hierarchy of oppression and divisions. There will be a day that the creation of opportunities will allow everyone to access them.

And finally there will be a day when our differences will not divide us. We will not be stigmatised by our differences and we will reject the term “abled bodied” so that people are not dehumanised. We will take responsibility to consider, recognise, accept and embrace our differences this will lay the foundation for the future. 

Thank you all and I look forward to your dreams becoming a reality.

Thank you!



  • Hales, G (1995). Beyond disability: towards an enabling society.  SAGE Publications Ltd)​
  • ​​​Collin, P H (2000). (2 edition) Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge. London​
  • Begum, N, Hill, M and Stevens, A (1994) Reflections. The views of Black Disabled People on their Lives and Community Care. Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. London​
  • New Statesman (2014). Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use” 

One thought on “Disability as Anti-Systemic Superpowers which will consider different ways that a future without the oppression and disavowed of non-able-bodied people could be radically empowering”

  1. Thank you for this, it was great to see it live! I've stopped using the term 'able bodied' since the conference, I'm kind of amazed that I never thought about it before. 

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