'Blunkett is in denial of his impairment as an experience'

July 14, 2000

Disability theorist Paul Darke (right) has an MA in American literature from Keele and a PhD in film studies from Warwick. His doctorate probed the pernicious stereotyping of disability in films - "from super cripple to super hero" - and will form the basis of a book out next year.

Darke, 38, a wheelchair user, has spina bifida and hydrocephalus. He has now left academia, finding it imbued with a culture that strives to "normalise" the experience of disability.

After irregular schooling - and undiagnosed dyslexia - he entered higher education at 23 on a "highly patronising" computer access course for the disabled at Wolverhampton University. He now works as a conceptual artist, creating arresting images that explore identity and difference.

He has an uncompromising critique of how universities are failing disabled people. "The culture demands sameness. Disability is the social process of marginalising and discriminating against people with pathological bodily impairments. Universities should set quotas (for the percentage of) disabled academics (they recruit and promote) to change that culture."

Darke is a founding member of Outside Centre, which seeks to explore identity through art. This summer he will help to install a 28ft steel wheelchair in Sherwood forest.

He thinks education secretary David Blunkett, who is blind, "is in denial of his impairment as a valid and different experience", and for disabled academics intent on career progression he has pragmatic advice. "Minimise your difference and normalise your behaviour as much as possible. Frankly, I couldn't sign up for that - it was too humiliating." And he fears that those who do risk suffering the stress of denying their true identity.


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