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A Meeting of Minds: Exploring the Boundaries of the Social Model of Disability in Bolivia

Susan Buell, Manchester Metropolitan University


Social justice requires a recognition of the unequal starting blocks for disabled people at the point where the processes for inclusion begin. The social model has noticeably shaped disability movements to beneficial effect in the north and the south over the last 10 years (Barnes and Mercer 2003). More recently, it has been referred to in development literature and policy documents as a relevant and useful framework for tackling issues of marginalisation and poverty for disabled people in developing countries (Thomas 2005). However, social model 'mainstreaming' has not delivered the positive outcomes for disabled people that it originally promised (Yeo 2005).

This paper argues for an interactional model of disability in development which broadens the social model into a continuum encompassing the disabling barriers caused by society and the barriers caused by impairment (Shakespeare 2006). Economic and political interpretations of the social model have levered attention away from a focus on improving disabled people's quality of life. Rights have thus become rhetoric rather than reality and the current trend for a rights based approach is shown to exclude a large number of disabled people, particularly in the developing world. In Bolivia, many disabled people are still cared for in institutions, the majority of which are under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Family and community based rehabilitation provide further interpretations of the social model in practice and reflect varying points on the interactional continuum. Additionally, this model allows for the inclusion of those based in a medical environment, as exemplified through a case study of a training programme in Bolivia. This comprised of a series of interactive workshops based on social model philosophy designed to improve the lives of disabled people. Based in a variety of centres and institutions participants included parents, care staff, domiciliary workers, teachers and those involved in healthcare. Economic, political and cultural issues impact upon both social movements and service delivery in this example. Currently, in Bolivia, an interactional approach is a more functional and realistic framework than a "literal" interpretation of the social model and reinforces a return to the DFID twin-track development policy of lobbying for rights, alongside a parallel drive to make qualitative improvements in people's lives (Barron and Amarena 2007).

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