Vic Finkelstein - Founder of the British Disability Rights Movement
• 4 min read
Vin Finkelstein was a disability rights activist and writer who died at the age of 73. He was an academic whose writings largely educated people with disabilities on their rights. Vic Finkelstein was born in 1938 and grew up in Durban, South Africa. His life changed forever in 1954 when he attempted a pole vault and broke his neck- a situation that left him paralyzed. Vic was in a wheelchair since the age of 16. The Jewish community in Durban helped with treatment and rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire.
After recovery, Vic returned to South Africa, where he attended the University of Natal in Durban and Pietermaritzburg before pursuing a Master’s Degree in Psychology at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. It was during this time that Vic became involved with anti-apartheid activism. In 1966, the flat Vic shared with his cousin was raided, and he couldn’t escape in his wheelchair. Therefore, he was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement with anti-apartheid activities.
He was imprisoned for three months, and during that time, he was forced to commit to a period of hard labor, hardship, and deprivation and issued a five-year ban under the Suppression of Communism Act (1967-1972). Finkelstein fled to the United Kingdom as a refugee in 1968 and became involved in the nascent British Disability Movement. Finkelstein describes how his firsthand experiences witnessing apartheid ruling and how the South African police treated him sparked a new way of thinking about society and how disabled people are oppressed.
After moving to the UK, Vic Finkelstein quickly established connections with other political people with disabilities. One of the people he connected with was Paul Hunt, yet another disabled activist. They came together and analyzed how the elements of the anti-apartheid movement could be utilized to fight for the civic rights of disabled people. In that regard, Paul published a letter to The Guardian in 1972 calling for a whole new organization established by people with disabilities.
Finkelstein was the first person to respond to Paul’s calling, and together they co-founded UPIAS- the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation in 1974. This was the first organization to reject a compensatory medical approach to disabilities. Alternatively, UPIAS focused on the social and structural barriers that oppress people living with disabilities, making them disabled. This is what resulted in the creation of a social model of disability.
Vic Finkelstein was the key drafter in laying down the main principles of the social model. He drafted the Fundamental Principles of Disability that described disability as a form of social oppression. This is what today we call the Social Model. Later in his career, Vic turned his attention to the formation of the disability arts. In fact, he helped set up London’s Disability Arts Forum in 1986. The forum was created to help promote and discuss the shared cultural identity of people with disabilities.
On top of that, he was also prominent in setting up the British Council Organization of Disabled People in 1981. He even became the first chair of the organization. The same year, Vic represented Britain at the very first world congress that Disabled People’s International established. Professionally, Vic worked as a psychologist for a couple of years in the health service.
Vic Finkelstein worked as a professor at Open University until 1994. He mostly held lectures on ‘The Disabled Person in the Society.’ This module is included in the initial courses on disability studies. Later, Vic joined the disability studies at the University of Leeds. At the time, he joined as a visiting senior research fellow. He remained active at the university until he retired in 2008.
Vic passed away in 2011, but his legacy is deeply ingrained in all crucial things in the disability struggle today and the power the disability arts movement wields. On top of that, the works of Vic Finkelstein inspired the creation of Disability Equality Training, the campaign for civil rights legislation, and Direct Payments. Today, we are thankful to Vic for the thousands of people worldwide who are now getting a more rewarding and fulfilling lifestyle than they could have imagined because of the battles people like Vic fought.