Co-ops and disability: New ways to meet people’s needs

Researcher Steve Graby organised an event bringing together representatives of the co-op and disabled people’s movements

Activists and academics from the co-operative and disabled people’s movements gathered at the University of Leeds last month to look for ways to better meet people’s needs. 

Researcher and co-operator Steve Graby, who organised the Disabled People, Co-operatives and Co-operation event, shared their recent reseach paper Work without bosses, homes without landlords, and nothing about us without us: Researching disabled people’s involvement in co-operatives in the UK.

The study, funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation, includes a survey of co-ops about accessibility, case studies of three disabled-focused co-ops and 20 individual interviews with disabled people who are or previously were members of co-ops.

Graby said the research defines disabled people according to the social model of disability, as originated by disabled activists in Britain in the 1970s and 80s. This model states that people are disabled by barriers in society as opposed to their impairments, and as such the term ‘disabled people’ is preferred to ‘people with disabilities’.

Graby uncovered five key values that both the co-operative and disabled people’s movements share: inclusivity and egalitarianism; collective self-interest; autonomy, choice and control in everyday life; non-paternalistic solidarity based on principles of mutual aid rather than charity; and making the environment fit people rather than vice versa.

With these shared values in mind, Graby shared with attendees some of the experiences of disabled co-operators they had spoken to, mainly across housing and workers’ co-ops.

Related: UKSCS Conference takes a look at co-ops as a force for good

Co-operative housing was compared favourably with private rented housing and mainstream social housing (e.g. local authorities), with pricing, security and the ability to make changes to homes that landlords may not permit cited as key benefits.

Some participants reported that the social and interpersonal aspects of living in a co-op made for a better living experience, even when the physical accessibility of the buildings was worse in the co-ops.

The sense of community that comes with being part of a housing co-op was also highlighted as beneficial for disabled members who may experience more difficulty in getting social interaction outside of the house.

When it came to work, flexibility and the ability to collectively decide working practices was shown to be a major factor in making worker co-ops more accessible for disabled people. Some respondents had founded worker co-ops specifically as an alternative to other forms of work for this reason. Where disabled workers’ needs couldn’t be met due to the nature of the work, it was still reported that there was a positive experience of good communication and desire to accommodate members as much as possible. 

The collectivisation of domestic duties in housing co-ops was also said to be an important access factor for many participants, referred to in Graby’s research as ‘social reproduction’ – a term used to refer to the work that needs to be done to enable more formal paid work to happen, including cooking, cleaning and childcare. Graby identified social reproduction as a “core element of the purpose and value of co-ops”, and was mentioned by a number of disabled co-operators as a positive aspect of their involvement in co-ops, connecting with the values of solidarity and self-determination. 

There were also downsides to living and working in co-ops for some. In both workers’ co-ops and housing co-ops, the expectation that all members need to ‘pitch in’ and contribute some form of unpaid labour as part of their involvement, was reported as a negative experience for some disabled co-op members who had different capacity levels to their non-disabled counterparts, in particular those involved in larger or non-disabled focused co-ops. 

“Other aspects of co-op culture that several participants found problematic, particularly in smaller housing co-ops, included a focus on environmentalism and ‘ethical’ consumption practices that could disregard disabled people’s access needs, for example for easier-to-prepare food, higher indoor temperatures in winter, or simply for more living space per person,” said Graby.  

Related: From crisis to co-operation – Future Co-ops 2023

Interpersonal conflicts were also presented as challenges for respondents, particularly in housing co-ops, where in some cases the disabled member felt they had no choice but to leave the co-op.

Graby added that while “the extent to which they were precipitated by either clashing access needs or a refusal on the part of other co-op members to accept access needs and/or impairment realities was debatable, the conflicts were at least exacerbated by these factors, as well as by the intimacy of the living situation and strong expectations of shared values and commitments.”

The research also explored disabled people’s perspectives on how well they thought disability and related concepts were understood within their co-ops, which were found to vary.

While the numerous shared values between the co-op and disabled people’s movements often meant there was more of a general willingness to learn more about disabled people’s needs, ignorance of the various nuances of disability within the wider population meant that it was not a given that co-op members would be aware of these needs. 

This often placed a  burden on disabled people to bring these issues to group discussions, which could feel intimidating. This ignorance could manifest within the co-operative context as behaviour more akin to the charity model of disability, a well meaning but generally disempowering way of treating disabled people, described by one respondent as co-op members being “nice to disabled people”.

A suggested solution to this issue was more education on the social model where needed within co-ops.

Despite some negatives, Graby’s research found “an overall strong consensus that co-ops have powerfully positive potential for disabled people.” Most people involved in the research felt that there could or should be more disabled-focused co-ops, as well as more co-operatives in general.

Also speaking at the event was Cheryl Barrott, vice chair of Co-operatives UK, chair of the Sheffield Cooperative Development Group, former vice chair of the Co-operative Party and current co-chair of its (dis)Ability Network, who presented in her capacity as co-chair of the Cooperative Guild of Social and Community Workers.

Like Graby, Barrott highlighted the social model of disability, as well as the human rights model – the understanding that people with impairments is a natural part of human diversity, and that they must have the same rights as everyone else in society. This model is protected by the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She contrasted these models, the development of which were led by disabled people themselves, with the medical model which views disability as a deviation that needs to be fixed by a professional. Barrott made the point that while the medical model may be useful in some situations, e.g. a medical emergency, when used regularly, it creates low expectations and leads to people losing independence, choice and control in their own lives.

Outlining developments in the NHS and the Department for Work and Pension (DWP)’s approach to disability, Barrott shared an overview of the bio-psycho-social model, which was used to justify cost-cutting in the welfare system in 1990s, branded as ‘enabling’ disabled people back into work, explained Barrott.

“The idea of supporting disabled people into work sounds great, and a lot of us would like to have that support into work. But if it’s the same support that we’ve had up to now, that’s very scary for us.” 

Barrott cited the case of Linda Wotton, who in 2013 died just nine days after the government declared her fit for work.

“But one of the things that we could do, if disabled people can get together, is use co-operation as a way of mitigating that,” says Barrott. “So we don’t go to charities, who will take the contracts to put us into work, but we set up our own co-operatives so that we can work under our own limitations and our own expectations.”

One of the key distinctions Barott made between the social and human rights model of disability, as compared with the bio-psycho-social or medical model, is that the creation of these models were led by disabled groups.

Barrott drew the conference’s attention to Arnstein’s ladder of participation, which features a number of ‘rungs’, moving from more disempowering forms of engagement at the bottom, such as coercion or education, through to more involved but often tokenistic practices in the middle, up to genuine expressions of autonomy and control at the top, through methods such as co-production and co-design – approaches Barrott refers to as “almost co-operation”.

“We need to make sure that when we are developing co-operatives with and for disabled people that we don’t fall into the middle three rungs, partnership, placation or consultation,” says Barrott.

Barrott also emphasised that disabled people need “legal personalities that fit us”, which may mean thinking more broadly about co-operation as a practice beyond the existing legal structures for co-ops, which are not always as inclusive as less formalised mutual aid style groups than can be found in the disabled people’s movement.

In practice: Worker co-ops

A number of panel discussions were held at the event to explore some of the experiences, challenges and potential of co-operation for disabled people within worker co-ops, housing co-ops and multi-stakeholder co-ops.

The discussion around worker co-ops chimed with Barrott’s presentation on the DWP’s treatment of disabled people. John Wormald of Enabled Works, a not-for-personal-profit workers’ co-operative that is owned and run by its own disabled workforce, said that the biggest challenge for them is navigating the benefits system and the extra costs associated with that. 

Leo Francisco from workers’ tech co-op Autonomic said that the DWP was designed to  “keep power in the hands of bosses and landlords,” by creating more competition for jobs, and presented co-ops as an alternative to this, and “a means for mutual aid and survival”.

When it comes to making worker co-ops better at supporting disabled members, Greta Williams Schultz from Manchester Business Co-op, said that clear policies are vital, so people know what is expected of them and others. 

Schultz also emphasised the importance of having accessibility considerations “baked into the business plan from the beginning”, a point that was also made in the session on multi-stakeholder co-ops.

In practice: Multi-stakeholder co-ops

Amber Wright, of Equal Care Co-op, a multi-stakeholder platform co-op providing care services, said that one of the biggest challenges  they face is being able to spend time “getting the foundations right”, when this kind of work is often not funded.

Veronika Susedkova from domiciliary home care co-op Co-operative Care Colne Valley explained that their key challenge is working towards long term transformative change while also working on the day to day, while “shifting what is perceived as possible”.

Another co-op looking to revolutionise its sector is Signalise, an interpreting co-op with a membership of deaf people, BSL/English interpreters and other interested parties such as healthcare providers and commissioners who need to purchase services. Signalise member Olive Lycett explained in the session how the co-op was established as a response to the inadequacies of existing services for deaf people.

Similarly, overcoming the obstacle of traditional ways of working and “perceived wisdom” was identified as a key aim by John Roberts of the North West Care Co-operative, whose members include those delivering and receiving care, as well as general supporters.

In practice: Housing co-ops

The need to shift mindsets was also discussed in the final panel on housing, where PhD researcher at the Centre for Disability Studies Inga Reichelt shared her experiences of housing co-ops. “Capacity is very contextual,” explained Reichelt, adding that people’s capacity can be increased when principles such as mutual aid are adhered to.

Luisa Gibson, who lives in Black Country Co-housing, West Midlands, said that “looking at equity rather than equality in co-ops is the route we need to go down,” so that individual differences in capacity, as well as the different ways people can contribute, are accommodated. 

Member of Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op Constance Bulhak said that abled co-op members need to put more effort into thinking about accessibility before disabled people have to shout about them. 

This was echoed by Fran Springfield, co-chair of the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project and member of a large urban housing co-op, who suggested ‘expert by experience swaps’ as a way of opening up people’s minds to possible accessibility needs in housing co-ops, as well as a national standard that can be used by all co-ops when thinking about accessibility.

Across all sessions, there was discussion around the potential relevance of co-operatives to disabled people, and vice versa. A number of panellists made the point that disabled people often develop good problem solving skills and a resourcefulness that can be very useful to cooperatives, when supported in the right way. 

The sharing of positive stories was suggested as one way to raise awareness of the potential benefits of co-operatives to disabled people, and the principle of co-operation among co-ops was identified as a strength for the movement as useful information and policies around accessibility can be shared between co-ops, while the advancement of open source technology creates more opportunities for this to happen.

What next?

Despite being focused around academic research, the event naturally moved into a practical space towards the end of the day, and there seemed to be a clear appetite for continued communication and action from the room. 

Some of the next steps suggested included future events and the development of a disabled people, co-operatives and co-operation network, which will initially take the form of a mailing list. 

“We are starting to coalesce,” Cheryl Barrott told Co-op News after the event. “We do want to have visibility and some space within the movement as disabled people. We’re not asking for anything more than able bodied people, but we are asking that we are members of the co-op movement in our own right, authentically as who we are and what we can do, as much as what we can’t do.”

To stay updated with the emerging network around disabled people, co-operatives and co-operation, contact Steve Graby at