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Professor Mike Oliver

Disability Rights Activist and Author

Professor Mike Oliver was a disability rights activist and author who passed away on 2 March 2019. Mike Oliver was a Kent undergraduate and studied for his PhD here, graduating in 1979. Mike then led an MA in Social Work at the University of Kent, and in 1983 wrote ‘Social Work with Disabled People’ in which he framed the Social Model of Disability.

The Social Model has been used beyond the field of social work; adopted within Higher Education and across the public sector, as a method by which to challenge and improve public services. Mike modestly admitted the success of the idea went far beyond his original intentions, to become the best practice model for working with disabled people; ‘…the social model was received much more enthusiastically by disabled people because it made an immediate connection to their own experiences’ (Mike Oliver).

Mike’s activism in the 1980s contributed to pressure on the government to pass the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. Mark Pimm of Birkbeck University comments that ‘Professor Oliver completely changed the way British people view disability, transitioning from disability being something you have because you have the impairment, to something that results from the choices society makes. By making this transition the disability movement was able to secure the resources from government and others that has done so much to improve all of our lives.’

Connection to Kent

The Student Support and Wellbeing department at Kent connected with Mike in 2017 when he agreed to come out of retirement to speak at the University’s inaugural Disability History Month, giving a distinguished visitor lecture: Bleeding Hearts and Parasite People

Mike enjoyed coming back to his alma mater and returned again in November 2018, as we had made a film in recognition of his life and work: Kicking Down the Doors: from Borstal Boy to University Professor

We worked with his friend and colleague Gerry Zarb to host a memorial in October 2019, with many colleagues and admirers of Mike’s work coming together to pay tribute to his impressive legacy: Mike Oliver Memorial Transcript.pdf (PDF 198.02 KB)

The University of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives holds a Mike Oliver digital archive dating from the period 2010-2019. For information and access please see Special Collections and Archives Catalogue or contact specialcollections@kent.ac.uk

In 2020, Tom Sharp and Natalia Crisanti in Kent's Student Support and Wellbeing team were asked to write an article for the Disability and Society Journal on Professor Oliver's extraordinary Kent Career. With University of Kent access, the full article on Mike Oliver at the University of Kent (1972–2019) can be accessed via Taylor and Francis Online.

Kent Student Award for Accessibility

To honour his contribution to the field of accessibility and pass the baton to the next generation of Kent students, we are delighted to have created. The Mike Oliver Award for Improving Accessibility in 2020 for a student or group in this category for helping to improve accessibility at the University of Kent and beyond. While teaching at Kent, Mike Oliver developed the Social Model of Disability based on the principle that nothing could be achieved for disabled people without their involvement in making decisions about their own lives. He believed that true accessibility is possible not by focusing on the individual’s impairments but by removing the physical, digital and cultural barriers in our society.

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