Invalid Definitions, Invalid Responses: Disability and the Welfare State, 1965-1995

Millward, Gareth; (2014) Invalid Definitions, Invalid Responses: Disability and the Welfare State, 1965-1995. PhD thesis, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. DOI:

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This thesis is a historical investigation of how British governments in the late twentieth century defined and responded to disability. It uses official records and publications, the archives of prominent voluntary organisations and some oral histories. The period between 1965 and 1995 saw the rise of pan-impairment organisations campaigning for the recognition of disabled people’s financial needs and, later, for civil rights. It was therefore a time of great political change, resulting in extensive reforms to both social security and anti-discrimination legislation. Examining Deborah Stone’s ‘distributive dilemma’, I argue that government policies towards disabled people centred on their poverty rather than encouraging their equal participation in society. Although voluntary organisations successfully brought public attention to, and concern for, the needs of disabled people, they were unable to secure legislative change to the extent that they had hoped. Internal bureaucratic momentum in the British government resulted in the extension of disability benefits in the 1970s and their retention in the 1980s and 1990s. However, such reforms were piecemeal and constrained by the economic problems during the period. Within these confines, governments did take on board arguments by disability groups, but understood and reinterpreted them within their own political traditions. Existing histories of this period are either incomplete or written by the very activists involved. A concentration on the “social model” of disability has led to highly politicised accounts which both obscure the context of government policy and the motivations and constitution of lobbying organisations. I argue that existing ideal types for voluntary groups are problematic in the field of disability. Further, while there may appear to have been “consensus” of disability policy at various points, understanding the difference between social democratic, liberal and neo-liberal approaches to disability allows us to construct a more nuanced history of the period.

Item Type: Thesis
Thesis Type: Doctoral
Thesis Name: PhD
Additional Information:
Keywords: disability, social security, pressure groups, politics
Faculty and Department: Faculty of Public Health and Policy > Dept of Social and Environmental Health Research
Research Centre: Centre for History in Public Health
Funders: Wellcome Trust PhD Scholarship


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