Having come so far, where to now?

Disability Studies Today

November 7, 2003

Disability has recently experienced an explosion of new titles as each list seeks authors to represent the growing strength of theory and research.

This collection is edited by the three people who have done more than anyone to establish disability studies as an academic discipline in the UK.

When he published The Politics of Disablement (1990), Mike Oliver gave the insights of disabled "organic intellectuals" the credibility and coherence of orthodox social science. Colin Barnes' 1991 research on disability and discrimination contributed to the campaign for disability discrimination legislation. His leadership of the University of Leeds masters in disability studies offered many activists a way into the academy. As well as his own research in special education, Len Barton co-founded the journal Disability and Society with Oliver and Barnes, and under his editorship it has become a publishing phenomenon.

The editors, together with Vic Finkelstein, are the dominant voices of the "social model" tradition in UK disability studies. Based on materialist approaches, this model defines disability as the societal response to impairment: people are disabled by social barriers and failures of provision, not by their bodies. This radical paradigm shift to "social creationism" was the big idea of the disability movement that inspired thousands of activists and set a new agenda for disability research. In the past decade, the approach has come under criticism: from some feminists; from those who argue that it fails to theorise impairment; and from many who speak from minority positions in the movement. Carol Thomas' chapter summarises this complex story succinctly and provides an excellent introduction to these debates, while Ayesha Vernon and John Swain develop the discussion of multiple minorities and difference.

While the editors' position is clear, they have commissioned articles that test and sometimes challenge the orthodoxy of social model-based disability studies. Anne Borsay tackles the ways in which a stress on social science has lead to the neglect of historical research. She argues that history can encourage critical reflexivity to feed personal and political identities.

In one of the few chapters with an empirical dimension, she shows how disability is not simply a product of industrial capitalism, as some of the materialist writers have claimed, and develops a more subtle analysis, using Foucauldian perspectives to explore the role of charity and the origins of orthopaedics. Paul Abberley, while himself from the materialist stable, draws on theorists such as Axel Honneth, Ulrich Beck and Joan Tronto to develop his long-standing argument that a stress on the integrative potential of employment will leave many disabled people still out in the cold. Phil Lee analyses the limitations of the social model and of the disability movement's stress on identity politics, and suggests alternative approaches to political strategy, for example the need for coalitions with groups such as older people. Geoff Mercer looks closely at the conventional disability rhetoric of "emancipatory research", and asks why there has not been a comparable debate about the appropriate methodologies for such an engaged social science.

A particular strength is the inclusion of chapters exploring the globalisation of disability. For example, Chris Holden and Peter Beresford analyse the internationalisation of the care homes industry and other aspects of health and social care.

Marcia Rioux's article starts by comparing Canadian and British legal judgments in cases of sterilisation, and widens out to explore national and international aspects of citizenship and social rights for disabled people.

She argues that, historically, disabled people have often been excluded from full citizenship rights, and she calls for a globalisation of social rights to recognise the basic needs and dignities of disabled people.

How representative is this collection of the current state of disability studies? The authors are explicit about focusing on social-science approaches, which excludes the wealth of interesting work in the humanities, much of it American. Aside from a trio of North American contributors, all the authors are British, which omits important competing perspectives, especially Scandinavian and Australian. But the biggest absence is the lack of any empirical research from the new generation of disabled scholars, who are critically applying and developing social-model insights to disabled people's experience and the disabling world.

The book's strengths lie in the discussions of social model-derived theory, and in the political analysis of legislation and social policy. These are traditional concerns of British disability studies, but it would have been valuable to have shown what a disability studies perspective could contribute to a discussion of healthcare, education, bioethics or culture.

There is nothing here about childhood, the family, sexuality, independent living and personal support, or the experience of impairment, yet disability studies has much to say about these areas, which are so central to disabled people's everyday lives.

In a thought-provoking conclusion, the editors return to the perennial issue of the relationship between the disability movement and disability studies in the academy. Because disability studies arose from the ideas and initiatives of the grassroots movement of disabled people, and because emancipatory research remains a central aspiration of the discipline, the fear of losing touch with the social movement dogs all discussions of disability theory. As the disability movement seems to be entering a period of retrenchment and fracturing, after the heady days of mass action and the campaign for civil rights, these worries weigh heavy on Barnes, Oliver and Barton, who are especially alert to the perceived danger of postmodernism.

The precedents are there. Perry Anderson has demonstrated how the defeats of the years after 1918 led western Marxism into theoretical sophistication and cultural analysis at the cost of political activism. And after the vigour of the 1970s, feminism in the 1980s moved into ever-more-arcane areas of social and cultural theory.

In the case of disability, the increasing distance between academia and activism is not all the fault of theory-besotted researchers or the demands of university funding regimes. Many activists have proved resistant to any development or to departure from the orthodoxies of the social model and suspicious of the motives and analyses of disabled academics. A tendency that could almost be called Maoist has dominated some parts of the movement. This has prevented proper debate and a pluralist approach to understanding the experiences of disabled people and disabling barriers, as well as undermining attempts to build broad coalitions or respond effectively to new challenges, such as that of genetics. Identity politics has sometimes become the prison that Foucault feared.

The effect of this is not just to drive a wedge between activist and academic approaches to disability. It is also to separate the militant vanguard of the disability movement from the broad mass of disabled people, who do not understand the origins of sectarian debates, or the details of ideological purity. Meanwhile the traditional organisations for disabled people - charities - have incorporated elements of the radical agenda, and repositioned themselves to take advantage of the "mixed economy of welfare" and the withdrawal of the state from direct provision of services.

As disability studies enters maturity, it will inevitably diversify and grow into many rich areas for research and analysis. The radical critique of the ways in which society fails disabled people remains as relevant as ever. So, too, does the need to bring the voices of disabled people into the centre of the cultural and political debate. If the disability movement fails to respond to the contemporary challenges, it will be up to an engaged disability studies to represent the perspectives of the excluded.

This collection provides a good overview of where disability studies has come from, but only limited assistance in working out where to go next.

Tom Shakespeare is director of outreach, Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute, University of Newcastle.

Disability Studies Today

Editor - Colin Barnes, Mike Oliver and Len Barton
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 280
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2656 4 and 2657 2

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