Vic Finkelstein: A Life Remembered

Alan Roulstone, Professor of Disability and Inclusion, University of Northumbria, UK

It was recently announced that Vic Finkelstein, veteran disability activist and academic had sadly passed away.  Vic Finkelstein was born in Johannesburg in 1938 and was part of the Jewish South African diaspora from Eastern Europe. Growing up in Johannesburg and Durban, Vic’s observations of the caste-like structures in South Africa amongst Black, Indian, Jewish, white British and Afrikaans populations informed his later understanding of disability.  His views of the worst excesses of the apartheid regime were brought to a head in 1954 aged 16 when he suffered a traumatic spinal injury in a pole vaulting accident at Durban High School. Finkelstein’s life was changed fundamentally by this event. As a wheelchair user unable to access many formerly accessible environments, Vic connected the spatial, economic and cultural segregation of black and white South Africa and the limits placed on disabled people at that time. Disabled people, as with black South Africans, were seen as ‘categorical problems’, populations inferior to and apart from the mainstream of life. The source of the disability problem in the official view, as with the legitimation of apartheid, was the inferior biological (and racial) self. Disablism and racism were seen as part of the natural warp and weft of South African life. Incomprehension and anger met those black people and their allies who challenged this ‘natural order’. Finkelstein was no stranger to insights on marginalised and stigmatised people; his Jewish history had taught him such lessons as the Jewish people’s involuntary flight from Egypt in biblical times. In a way he was well prepared intellectually to make sense of the increasing barriers placed upon him as a disabled Jewish South African. Vic would never falsely distil debates into simplistic binaries; for example, many with the surname Finkelstein had emanated from Lithuania and Poland and the commonly held view was that they were viewed as socially inferior (perhaps ironically) by German Jewish Azkhenazi communities who represented the epitome of cosmopolitan intellectuals in inter-war South Africa. Social divisions you might say were always at the forefront of Vic’s consciousness.

Finkelstein in time aligned his own personal struggles with disabling barriers to collective struggles against the apartheid regime. He operated safe houses for well-known dissidents and secreted ‘defamatory’ literature in those safe houses. He was eventually detained under the infamous 180 day detention laws and was treated brutally by the South African political police. Finkelstein’s sentence was commuted slightly as he was a ‘cripple’. The twisted logic of apartheid is hard to grasp from the standpoint of the 21st century. Finkelstein was banned from social congregation for 5 years, something he noted caustically happened to many disabled people anyway. Suffice to say the South African political police thought they were doing Vic a favour and that he would in time desist from behaviour untypical of a ‘cripple’. He of course did not desist and the South African liberation struggle had become inextricably linked to his own personal and intellectual development as a disabled person. Having helped many to escape the Apartheid regime, including the novelist Tom Sharpe, Vic decided that the banning order meant de facto his only real avenue for survival was to leave South Africa.

Finkelstein came to Britain to both escape the witch hunt of apartheid’s opponents and to apply his applied psychology degrees to clinical work with disabled people. He had always wanted to apply his psychology interests to disability, particularly in rehabilitation, but this field was not ready for disabled colleagues. Whilst circumstances quickly moved Vic beyond NHS work into academic disability work. He chaired the ‘Handicapped Person in the Community’ (subsequently retitled!) Course at the Open University for 20 years and played a key part in establishing academic studies of disability. Vic worked with Mike Oliver, John Swain, Anne Brechin, Veda Carver and Len Barton in the early days and later with Colin Barnes and others in taking disability studies out of its previous therapeutic cul-de-sac. A reading of the seminal test ‘Handicap in the Social World’ vividly illustrates a challenge to the established approach to disability which emphasised loss, adjustment, the need for ‘help’ and a strong sense of rescue being effected by what Vic dubbed ‘professions allied to medicine’. I first met Vic in 1989 as his PhD student. Vic was irreverent and principled in equal measure in the sense that his sometimes caustic modus operandi were viewed as a prerequisite for change. He knew from his liberation struggle days that power is not handed over easily in social regimes and that powerful people would use emollient language to disguise their refusal to change. For Vic, the revolution in ideas and practice would not be genteel in nature. One early rhetorical question he put to me, and ‘sotto voce’ so as not to be heard, was: why are disability and related fields replete with well meaning, largely privileged and ostensibly non-disabled clinicians and academics? I of course had no ready answer to that.  Vic was forthright in a quiet, but assured way, his intellect was razor sharp and uncliched. He often left me speechless at his comments, questioning the very structures of thinking as opposed to the external appearance of an issue or way of thinking. He was often fiercely critical of fashionable and often ephemeral social theories that, as he put it, played around the edges of social issues, he also hated academic pomposity. This did lead to some interesting encounters with management and to a profound distaste for market-driven education in his later years at the OU. Vic had a profound distaste for the managerialism that pervaded his later years in higher education.

Vic is however perhaps best remembered for his work in popularising the social model of disability and promoting a nascent disabled people’s movement in England. Working with Paul and Judy Hunt, Ken and Maggie Davies in the 1970s in establishing the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). It is inconceivable to think about user-led organisations and CILs without these foundational activities. Vic and his wife Liz worked tirelessly to promote a model of disability that challenged prevailing notions of disability as loss and an adjustment to personal tragedy. Vic challenged the incomes and lobbying approach adopted by the Disablement Income Group (DIG) during the 1970s noting that this was a compensatory approach to disability with no sustainable grassroots identity. Finkelstein helped change understandings of disability to that of a social oppression of an unresponsive disabling society. Vic felt that art had a particular role to play in the emancipation of disabled people and the realisation of a more enabling society and he worked with Sian Vasey and Anne Rae to rethink the role of art and disability. Vic offered an alternative image of ‘professionals allied to disabled people’ and enabling technologies which has spawned a great deal of academic work. In this sense Vic was not a separatist, but he made clear that professionals, longer term, had to confront whose side they are on and to realise their livelihoods depend on disabled people. This was about as far away from a paternalist vision as could be imaged for the 1970s.

Vic is survived by his two daughters Anna and Rebecca. I will leave the last word to Vic as he can best sum up his purpose and motivations in making the world a better place for disabled people:

‘Lessons from the SA liberation struggle, the anti-apartheid campaigns in the UK, the national and international disability emancipatory struggles and my academic contributions all seem to add up to a life-long affirmation of human tenacity in pursuing justice and social rights….When I went pole-vaulting at Durban High School in 1954 I left behind one destiny and moved instead ‘forward to square one’ and began living another more fulfilling, more rewarding and more human lifestyle than I could ever have predicted’.