Mike Oliver, pioneer of 'revolutionary' social model of disability, dies - reports

Mike Oliver, a pioneering disability studies scholar who coined the influential social model of disability, has died, according to reports.

A number of widely-shared tweets mourn the March 2 passing of the UK's first disability studies professor.

Dr Oliver is best known for affirming that removing the disabling barriers that limit and oppress people with impairments is a social - not an individual - responsibility.

"It [the social model] was basically giving you the opportunity, both personally and politically, to rethink about yourself and your position in society," the quadriplegic explained on YouTube.

"The problem isn't that I can't get into a lecture theatre, the problem is that the lecture theatre isn't accessible to me.."

Dr Martin Sullivan, who designed and taught in New Zealand's first postgraduate disability studies programme, described Dr Oliver as "an intellectual giant and a really good bloke.

Dr Sullivan travelled to England in 1998, specifically to meet disability studies and disability rights pioneers such as Dr Oliver.

"They were activists; they were brilliant scholars. Meeting Mike Oliver was going into the holy of the holies," Dr Sullivan told Newshub.

Dr Oliver invited Dr Sullivan to his house, where they discussed disability theory - a little, and Leonard Cohen a lot - over several glasses of wine. They agreed that the social model was good at explaining external oppression on disabled people.

"If you're told by society all the time that you don't really fit in, that you're not a full human being... you can internalise a lot of that," Dr Sullivan said.

"You beat yourself up over it, rather than looking at its social origins. It [the oppression] is created in a disabling society."

And they agreed to disagree about the visibility or acknowledgement of the impaired body within a disabled identity.

In the scheme of things, Dr Sullivan hastens to add, they had more important things to argue about.

"We had greater differences on the merits of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan then on the body within the social model."

Cohen was Dr Oliver's pick; Dylan, Dr Sullivan's.

Dr Oliver, born in 1945, was Professor Emeritus of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich.

He did not invent the principles underlying the social model; they came out of a booklet published by the British union of the Physically Disabled against Segregation in 1976.

It was Dr Oliver, however, who named the social model, after developing the idea as a tool to aid his masters students at the time, who were social workers and occupational therapists.

When he described the model in book form in 1983, he explains on YouTube that many disabled people saw it "almost like their mantra".

"It was important for collective political consciousness that we had a slogan."

Dr Sullivan says Dr Oliver's ideas were "a truly revolutionary rethinking of disability".

"His [Oliver's] thinking has provided the political impetus for change across the world. If Mike Oliver was in New Zealand, we'd be saying a great tōtara in the field of disability studies has fallen."

Dr Oliver's legacy, in fact, is visible in the New Zealand Disability Strategy, which states: "Disability is something that happens when people with impairments face barriers in society; it is society that disables us, not our impairments."

"Disabled people's lives," Dr Sullivan emphasises, "are so much easier because of his [Dr Oliver's] thinking. But we still have a bloody long way to go."