Interview: Katie Pennick on the power of the social model of disability

In which I meet a fellow traveller

Hello and happy Tuesday!

Welcome to an extra special issue of The View From Down Here.

As I was planning this newsletter, I knew I wanted to feature some of the incredible disabled women I am lucky enough to know. The lovely Katie Pennick, campaigns lead at Transport for All, was kind enough to meet me for a chat - and did we chat!

As a disabled person, especially a young one, you never quite know if the things you experience or feel are common or not. So when Katie, who I had previously only met online, started talking about discovering the social model of disability and the profound effect it had on her, I felt an unusual flash of recognition.

Before discovering the social model, Katie says, “I never used the word disabled or disability.” She’s a lifelong wheelchair user, but never asked for help or told people she needed wheelchair access. Katie puts all this down to “internalised ableism,” when disabled people come to believe some of the misconceptions and biases wider society holds about disability.

We’re sitting in the café at Waterstones on Gower St, and she tells me a story from her time at UCL - just around the corner - that perfectly incapsulates how she used to feel. “I was really insecure in situations where anything would draw attention to my wheelchair, and there was a really clunky, loud outdoor lift down to our common room,” she says. “The whole of Mallet Place would turn and look, and it was just me on this raising platform, and I absolutely hated it… So I just avoided using it.”


But then along came the social model and the transformational idea that “it’s not a problem with me, and I am disabled by the world not being accommodating to my needs. The fact that everyone's different, everyone has different bodies and needs and blah, blah, blah. And the only difference is that the average person's needs are accommodated, and mine are not. But that's on the world. That's not on me. It's not my fault… So yeah, the social model has been just completely revolutionary in my own life, in my own thinking.”

At this point in the conversation, I can feel myself nodding with over-keen enthusiasm. Here is someone speaking my language, seeing and living in the world I inhabit. Katie and I came to the social model at very different ages - I stumbled across it when I did some fundraising for Scope as a kid, she found it sandwiched between Marxism and liberalism in a book of 50 ideas you should know as a woman in her 20s - but it has similarly coloured our lives.

But as I tell Katie, although I’ve been talking about the social model for the better part of two decades, it’s only recently that I’ve really been able to apply it to my own life. I could see that disabled people were disabled by bad access and bad attitudes, but when it came to myself, my body still felt like the problem. Like Katie, I spent years being ashamed and apologising for needing help.

What really allowed me to live by the social model, in the end, was getting to know other disabled people. Katie had a similar experience. On a year’s studying abroad in America she discovered the world of disability theory and with it the disabled community. Many of the scholars, she says, “write about the concept of coming out, but as a disabled person - where you've essentially tried to, you've repressed a part of your identity for so long, whatever that looks like. I mean, obviously, I've never physically repressed it. I've always used a wheelchair - there's no getting around that, it's not like I thought I could walk somehow. But I did definitely repress it in other ways. Like, I didn't ask for accommodations that I need. And I forced myself into incredibly uncomfortable situations,” like going to completely inaccessible nightclubs where she had to be carried.

“I'd end up in places with no accessible toilet and have to not pee all night. And like, all these ridiculous things,” she says, “because I didn't want to ask for the the access that I am entitled to.” Now, she is happy to expect and ask for better - and, crucially, to put her foot down and say no.

For both of us, one major change followed when we embraced the social model: we made friends who did, too. If you never express what you need, people can’t give it to you. When you do explain, people learn. Good friends start to take over some of the logistical burden of disability, like calling up to check a pub is accessible, which makes life simultaneously easier and a bit less lonely. Just recently, Katie’s friends cancelled a night out because the venue had lied about being fully accessible - there wasn’t a disabled loo - and the whole group ended up having a night in instead. This, says Katie, is her version of a love language. I couldn’t agree more.

These changes don’t come overnight, the second you read the social model. They come, as Katie says, from years of work unlearning the behaviours society has taught you. But that first encounter, whether as a kid or an adult, plants the seed. Slowly, those changes come, and they all stem from knowing that your needs are valid, that you deserve to have them met and, more than anything, that you are not the problem.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to stop calling it the social model and name it what it is: the truth of disability.

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You can find Katie on Twitter - I really recommend following her for some great insight.

See you next week,

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Links of the week

  • With the release of the government's social care plan today, I wrote a thread about the myths and falsehoods we need to bust

  • ‘The crisis in social care is particularly cruel for the young people who need it’ -This from Frances Ryan is an absolutely essential read (Guardian)

  • ‘The mRNA vaccines are extraordinary, but Novavax is even better’ - a fascinating piece on how hype impedes understanding (Atlantic)