Disability Incarceration

Disability is one of many societal groupings that limits access to capital and, in turn, freedom. Before delving into a discussion of disability, it is important to define some key terms. ‘Impairment’ refers to the intrinsic limitations of a person’s physical or mental existence; ‘disability’ refers to the economic and social restrictions impaired people experience[1]. For example, while a person’s impairment may be that they are unable to walk, their disability relates to whether their needs are being met, whether through aids like a wheelchair, an accessible built environment, financial support, medical treatment, or freedom from prejudice. They are not disabled because they cannot walk, they are disabled because the needs that they have on account of this impairment are not being met. Their disability isn’t intrinsic to them or their body, like their impairment is; rather, they are disabled by the world around them.

Disabling factors can take many forms, from built environment, to design of transport, to political exclusion and societal prejudice. These factors have existed in many forms throughout history and all over the world, but they were undoubtedly exacerbated with the rise of capitalism. With the shift towards industrialisation, standardisation and capitalist efficiency, the will to meet the needs of impaired people was reduced[2]. As the exclusion of impaired people from the workforce increased, so the label of ‘disabled’ became synonymous with being ‘unproductive’[3].

This exclusion from the workforce continues today, with employment rates for disabled people of working age sitting at around 50%. This is further compounded by the fact that earnings are significantly lower for disabled people, 11% lower than their similarly educated non-disabled counterparts as of 2010. One reason for this is that the labour of a disabled person is more expensive due to the cost of ‘reasonable adjustments’ or assistance needed to access the workplace fully. These costs, within a capitalist society, are not seen as ‘worth the money’, meaning that disabled people continue to be shut out[4].

Within a capitalist society, where our value is placed on how productive we are, this means that disabled people are considered and treated as ‘lesser’. Perceived as unable to live independently, obtain gainful employment or contribute to society, disabled people are essentially constructed as ‘socially dead’[5]. This social death sees disabled people as victims of a society tragedy, as passive objects that deserve charity and as medical problems to be fixed[6]. This lens of viewing disabled people, described as the Medical and Charity Models within disability politics, run consistently throughout our society and form the foundation for how institutions interact with and treat disabled people.

Alongside the development of capitalism came the development of institutions designed to exclude disabled people from society and to serve as a tool of social control, such as workhouses, asylums, residential care homes and segregated ‘special’ schools. It is essential to understand these institutions as an extension of carceral justice and the prison system. These institutions pretend to be benefitting society through the removal of ‘undesirables’ however they simply result in further ‘social death’ and oppression. These institutions sell the idea that disabled people are incapable, unable to live independently, a burden on society and deserving of charity; these ideas only seek to maintain the exclusion of disabled people from society. While workhouses and asylums by name do not exist in modern society, they have taken new forms, whether through residential care homes, Remploy ‘specialist factories’, or modern psychiatric institutions. These institutions have not disappeared in the era of disability rights, they have simply shapeshifted and evolved.

The Workhouse and Institutionalisation

The workhouse as an institution was developed through the 17th century as a form of ‘poor relief’ to accommodate for the poor and those unable to work, in combination with community or ‘outdoor’ provision provided by local authorities, however this provision was later taken away. As the system developed and the industrial revolution took hold, the workhouses became the only provision for disabled people, with the 1834 Poor Law denying relief outside of the workhouse[7]. This segregated provision essentially incarcerated disabled people, breaking up families and excluding individuals from their communities. Inmates were forced to wear uniforms and were forbidden from socialising in work hours; food was also limited to what was necessary for work and survival[8]. This was not a compassionate welfare system but rather incarceration for the sake of capitalistic efficiency[9]. The workhouses also categorised inmates as: sick, insane, aged and infirm, children or able-bodied[10]. The first three categories can be seen as the first administrative categorisation of disability.

Residential Homes

As time progressed, workhouses, long stay hospitals and asylums would close as these segregated ‘solutions’ became more expensive and difficult to justify[11]. Disabled people were moved out of large institutions into smaller residential homes, but as these homes were staffed by similar people who ran the large institutions, the same attitudes and abuse — and of course the same principle of keeping disabled people segregated from the rest of society — continued[12]. A 2018 study showed that abuse can be found in some form in 99% of English care homes, showing that the issue is not with the workhouse but the institutionalisation of disabled people in all its forms.

Kathleen Jones and A. J. Fowles described an institution as “any long term provision of a highly organized kind on a residential basis with the expressed aims of ‘care’, ‘treatment’ or ‘custody’”[13]. In reflection, I would argue that most disability service institutions fall under the custody category, as residential provision for disabled people is often not of choice but forced due to economic and social pressures. As Ellen Clifford describes, disability service provision “is not about life opportunities for diabled people but instead about warehousing those less capable of ‘productive’ work to free up those who are to get on with it unhindered”[14].

Segregated Education

Another form of institution that is associated with disabled people is the segregated or ‘special’ school. These institutions are a product of an education system with minimal resources, where disabled people do not have their needs met; rather than systematic underfunding it is disabled individuals that are perceived as a problem, a strain on resources. Often these ‘special’ schools focus on ‘care’ rather than promoting young people’s agency over their own lives with the aim of enabling them to join wider society[15]. The young disabled people at these schools are therefore less likely to have the educational opportunities or life experience needed for adulthood[16]. These institutions often cater for an age range well beyond the standard 4 to 18 educational provision; for example, Treloar School caters up to age 25. This extended age range ultimately reinforces a view of disabled people as burdensome, incapable, and infantile, and extends the exclusion of disabled people from society even further. This approach has also been reinforced by the Conservative government, who, while pledging to ‘end the bias’ towards the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream provision, enforce welfare cuts that push disabled children out of mainstream education through financial necessity[17].


“If all the institutions in a given region were emptied and closed down today, tomorrow parents, relatives, police, judges, doctors and social workers would raise a clamour for new ones; and here the true clients of the institution would demand new institutions to satisfy their needs.” — Goffman, 1961[18]

The maintenance of these institutions is systemic and there are many collaborators who profit off the confinement, oppression and exploitation of disabled people. As discussed in our ‘Freedom and Justice’ blog it is no surprise that the state, police and judiciary are collaborators in denying freedom to minority groups. A perhaps unexpected player is the charity sector, which purports to defend disability rights, but have become indistinguishable from the state through corporate agendas and cosying up to the political elites and are a key players in the continued institutionalisation of disabled people[19].

To end the institutionalisation of disabled people we must take a critical look at a capitalist system that paints disabled people as unable and dependent. Dependency is not intrinsic to disability, it is a condition that is a product of an economic, social and physical environment that capitalism creates. No one in our society is fully independent, as discussed in Blog 1 on Freedom and Justice, and an individualistic view of existence or freedom is simply a neoliberal concept that is used to oppress us. This is echoed through Mike Oliver’s thoughts on the Medical Model of disability, where he states: “there is no such thing as the medical model of disability, there is instead an individual model of disability of which medicalization is one significant component”[20].

In response we must turn to a collective, communal and social understanding, using the social model of disability — which sees disablement as a product of the physical, social and economic environment that impaired people exist in — as the foundation for our political discourse. Rather than focusing on ‘fixing’ disabled people in order to fit them into an able-bodied world, or locking them away in prison-like institutions to exclude and socially ‘kill’ them, we must ‘fix’ a disabled world in order to meet the needs of impaired people. We must build a new world, with the needs of impared people core to its design. Rather than focusing on individual experiences of impairment, we must centre collective experiences of disablement and abolish the violent structures which stand in the way of liberation[21]. We must create a medical and welfare system that is well funded and ‘needs’ led; we must abolish segregated education and fund quality support within mainstream provision; we must abolish residential care while increasing support and resources for community living; and we must shut down charities which aim to exploit disabled people and maintain their institutionalisation. Only through radical change, and the abolition of all disablist institutions, can liberation occur.


Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) — https://dpac.uk.net

Universal Credit Campaign — #KeepTheLifeline

Not Dead Yet — http://notdeadyetuk.org

Reading List

The War on Disabled People — by Ellen Clifford

A Very Capitalist Condition — by Roddy Slorach

Disability Politics — by Jane Campbell and Mike Oliver

The Politics of Disablement — Mike Oliver


  1. Colin Barnes, ‘Cabbage Syndrome’ (Basingstoke: Falmer Press, 1990), 4
  2. Michael Oliver, ‘The Politics of Disablement’ (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), 27
  3. Ellen Clifford, ‘The War on Disabled People’ (London: Zed, 2020), 267
  4. Roddy Slorach, ‘A Very Capitalist Condition’ (London: Bookmarks, 2016), 239
  5. Vic Finkelstein, ‘Disability: a social challenge or an administrative responsibility’ In: John Swain, Vic Finkelstein, Sally French and Mike Oliver (eds.) ‘Disabling Barriers — Enabling Environments’, (London: Sage, 1993), 35
  6. Oliver, 1990, 5
  7. Barnes, 1990, 21
  8. Barnes, 1990, 22
  9. Barnes, 1990, 21
  10. Barnes, 1990, 22
  11. Oliver, 1990, 38
  12. Clifford, 2020, 51
  13. Kathleen Jones and A. J. Fowles, ‘Ideas on Institutions’ (London: Routledge, 1984), 297
  14. Clifford, 2020, 26
  15. Barnes, 1990, 2
  16. Clifford, 2020, 183
  17. Clifford, 2020, 183
  18. E. Goffman, ‘Asylums’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 334
  19. Clifford, 2020, 252
  20. Cited in Clifford, 2020, 312
  21. Clifford, 2020, 316



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Socialists of Colour

Socialists of Colour


We are a collective of Black Socialists and Socialists of Colour Follow us on Twitter: @SocOfColour.