Able minds incarcerated by traditional attitudes

April 24, 1998

What makes someone disabled - society or their own bodies? Tom Shakespeare reports on a radical academic subject, while Sarah Earle (below) argues that there is still one taboo for universities admitting disabled students - sex

Perhaps the study of disability has at last "arrived" as a major academic field: publishers' catalogues are swelling with books on disability theory, disability and sexuality, disability and literary studies, disability and educationI For so long the poor relation to gender, sexuality and race, disability is finally being recognised as an exciting domain of study.

Twenty years ago, literature on disability comprised the two approaches of "cure" or "care" and was dominated by non-disabled writers. The field changed due to the impact of disabled people who challenged discrimination and prejudice. New organisations, controlled by disabled people, started questioning the dominance of professionals and charities. Paralleling the development of feminism, activists developed consciousness-raising groups and political campaigns. At the Open University a new multi-disciplinary course, stressing disabled people's autonomy and civil rights, was initiated in 1975, and more radical texts slowly followed.

The "big idea" of disability was the "social model", which underpinned both academic and political advances. According to the social model, rather than being the consequence of physical or mental impairment, disability can be defined as the relationship between people with impairment and the society which discriminates against them: people are disabled by society, not by their bodies. This analysis focuses attention on the limitations of the physical and social environment - schooling, the labour market etc - rather than on the physical or intellectual limitations of the individual.

Re-defining the problem of disability has led to major advances in the 1980s and 90s. In the political arena, the growing confidence of disabled people is demonstrated by the campaign for civil rights and direct action protests against transport and benefit cuts. In the academic field, research by scholars such as Jenny Morris and Colin Barnes has been responsible for theorising the disablement process, providing evidence for widespread discrimination against disabled people.

As well as the developing Open University course, other academic initiatives have responded to the challenge of civil rights. The first postgraduate course was offered at the University of Kent from 1979, aimed primarily at social workers. From 1993, the disability research unit of the University of Leeds has run an MA in disability studies, and other British institutions are following suit with modules, courses, and research groups. There is considerable demand from undergraduates, because they see disability studies as both unfamiliar and engaged. In print, the refereed journal Disability and Society is growing, while an active Internet discussion list involves up to 500 participants across the English-speaking world.

In the United States, disability radicalism was initiated by veterans of the Vietnam war in the early 1970s, and the civil rights movement succeeded in getting the far-reaching Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. The US Society for Disability Studies holds its 11th annual meeting this year, and new courses are being developed in a number of US universities. Yet while British disability studies has always maintained a close relationship with political activism, US scholars seem more oriented towards the academy.

Vic Finkelstein, at the OU, and Mike Oliver, at the University of Greenwich, could be said to be the "founding fathers" of disability studies. With their impending retirement, the field reaches the end of the first phase of its development. The social model is being refined. Some critics have argued that its power as a political tool conceals its inadequacy as an intellectual concept. Certainly, there are growing debates around issues such as the role of impairment, the need to research the personal experience of life as a disabled person and in particular the benefits of using contemporary poststructuralist and postmodernist social theoretical approaches. But as disability studies broadens its approach, there is the danger that it will lose its connection with the grassroots constituency of disabled people by becoming over-theoretical and inaccessible. The experience of feminism and the women's movement is a salutory lesson.

While the disability movement remains strong, and many disabled individuals have been empowered through activism and education, and have moved into professional roles, the overall situation of Britain's six and a quarter million disabled people remains grim. A minority is enjoying the benefits of new opportunities, but the majority remains incarcerated in "plantations" - the traditional institutions and day centres and old people's homes and special schools. The continued failure to achieve comprehensive civil rights legislation and the recent threat by new Labour to restrict welfare benefits show that the major political victories remain to be won.

Tom Shakespeare is research fellow at the University of Leeds.

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