Independent Living Movement Ireland

Strategies for Change Update

The evening of Tuesday 25th of January saw the end of last year’s Strategies for Change Programme, and to mark this event, we had Professor Colin Barnes come and talk to us about the importance of understanding the Social Model of Disability and using its language.

Our Chairperson – Des Kenny opened the event by congratulating all the Strategies for Change Graduate’s. He told us that “it wasn’t so easy to get a collective of disabled people together anymore… years ago you could find us in special schools or special centres, and we found ways to organise, but this is no anymore… things have changed and ILMI had to figure out a way to reach out nationally and we did!”

Strategies for Change Update Zoom | ILMI

Zoom made it possible for us to build relationships with disabled people, and through Strategies for Change we reached disabled people from across Ireland to collectively learn to strategise, and have one voice. 

Part of Strategies for Change is about continuing the work of what Many of us started in the early years of the movement – transforming disability services, disability policy & law, to bring about change…”

Strategies for Change has planted the seeds of collective activism, so go germinate, share your knowledge, build solidarity, work collectively, and be the “change-makers that we know you have become”.

Professor Colin Barnes speaking at the SFC event

Colin was born blind, and both his parents were disabled. Colin told us that he 

“Was never brought up to feel different…my parents understood what the world was about and they knew that having an impairment wasn’t the problem… it was the way society was organised.

Colin Barnes | ILMI

Colin’s dad worked in a sheltered workshop for blind people, and his mother had a mental health illness and was in and out of hospitals all her life, but otherwise he “had a great childhood”. He did tell us that he went to special school up until he was eleven “and hated it” but then he went to an ordinary school “it was the best school ever” even though he’d never seen the blackboard.

Colin left school at the age of 15 “with no qualifications”. He went to work in the catering industry, stayed there for a number of years, did some night schooling and achieved “three O Levels”. In 1980, Colin went to Teacher Training College and while there, he developed a course to teach “disabled kids how not to be disabled and survive in a non-disabled world”. Colin lived all his life as a “disabled person” and subsequently “knew in a sense, what the social model of disability was all about. This training course was about helping disabled kids to survive, develop their life skills, and help them to request support when needed “without being patronizing”.  Colin went on to say that a “chap at the college” liked what he was doing and suggested that that Colin do further study.

Subsequently, Colin applied to Leeds University (department of sociology) and requested that he study sociology with an interest in “disability”. He was told “yes” but “had to pass an entry exam” and the rest is history. 

Colin completed three years as an undergraduate (1982), and produced a dissertation called Sociology of Disability, Discrimination, and Disabled People. He told us that this research was profoundly inspired by the emerging Disabled People’s Movement:

Attending this conference was an English organisation called the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). This group came together in1974 and it was an organisation of disabled people. 

The group was made up of disabled people living in long-term institutions and they all wanted change. They decided that there was a need to split individual impairments from societal responses to people with impairments, which meant that everything including language was turned upside down:

Colin believes that impairment is just part of life, especially if people live into their older years – most disabled people also acquire their impairments through accidents or the aging process – Colin for example is losing his hearing, but this is just “part of getting older”. So, impairment is “a common experience but disability is not”

Also, important here is that impairment can affect the “rich or poor” but it’s easier for a rich person to be disabled then it is for a poor person. The real lesson here is “that we can make things better for people with impairments and that is what the Social Model is about”. For example, having access to; large print; braille; easy read, audio description; level access, lifts; tactile surfaces etc., this the Social Model of Disability at work – changing those disabling barriers, be it physical, attitudinal, or cultural and this is what Disability Activism is all about. 

Language also comes into play here, how we describe ourselves, if we say I am a person with a disability this implies that “my disability is my fault and my responsibility, I need to change” (internalised ableism – see – –  so society is off the hook.  But if we describe ourselves as “disabled people/person this means that you/we are becoming part of the movement for change” because you/we are adopting a social model approach, and this is a political stance. Disability is a political issue, be it personal or collective (see – – Disability its Political). 

Other important points in this conversation include:
  • Those that define/describe themselves as disabled people ensures that they are not ashamed of “being a person with an impairment because it’s simply part of life. Colin told us that it is so easy to fall into the trap of feeling responsible for both your impairment and the difficulties/barriers that you encounter because of all the beforementioned but this is a trap as it ignores societal responsibilities
  • Needing human support in the form of personal assistance is a reality for some disabled people but this is not “dependence”. The idea that some disabled people are more dependent than other people is fabricated, we are all dependent on other people, it is part of life, is part of being human, we cannot survive on our own and if we think about personal assistance, lots of disabled people also offer employment to many people.

Let us go back to “the rich” for a minute. So, the wealthier you are, the more powerful you are, but the more dependent you become – think about the Royal Family or the gentry for example, “they are the most dependent people in the world”. In olden days they would have employed people to help them to dress, undress, wash, cook, clean, organise, regardless of ability. 

Having paid support was part and parcel of who they were, some of them don’t even, to this day, choose the clothes, but we do not judge, they don’t experience disability, and it’s quite normal for them”.

Accordingly, the idea of “society providing services is not unusual” hence the Social Model of Disability in inverted comma’s Independent Living is all about having access to personal assistance (PA) where required – needing PA is not a weakness, it is a strength. 

It is also not unusual for Governments that experience economic difficulties to interrupt services for disabled people. But the reality is that government’s do have and can find the monies “given political action”. 

Disabled Activists are grassroots thinkers, that mobilize and rally together, using Social Model language to influence real social change for all disabled people.

Colin also mentioned an upcoming Injustice International’ Convention Event – see – 

CCI Workshop | (In)Justice International Find out about our upcoming conventions, conferences and workshops on injustice, Leeds. Contact our team for further information today.
Other Information about Colin

Colin established the Centre for Disability Studies in Leeds (see – and was their Director up until 2008. He also founded the independent publisher: The Disability Press in 1996 and an electronic archive of writings on disability issues: The Disability Archive UK in 1999 (see – 

Damien Walshe (CEO), closed the session, by thanking participants for sticking it out, it wasn’t easy, taking part in 26 sessions – it is a real testament to your commitment to making Ireland a better place for disabled people. He went on to say that he is very excited to see what this group will do this year. 

Damien concluded by thanking ILMI staff – the 2 James, Peter, Fiona, its members – Aisling Glynn, Ellis Palmer, Eileen Daly, Colm Whoolley, its board members – Jacqui Brown, Des Kenny, & Selina Bonnie and ILMI’s allies – Niall Crowley, Laurence Cox, Aileen O’Corroll and her team, Elis Barry, the people in IHREC, & Eilinior Flynn for making Strategies for Change such a huge success.

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