DISABILITY STUDIES: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY FIELD
Prof. Dr. Nasir Sulman
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
Disability study is an interdisciplinary field that deals with the development of paradigmatic shifts in relation to the ontological and epistemological ground of disability policies, theories, research and practices. Disability studies are an explicit commitment to assist disabled people in their fight for full equality and social inclusion by creating greater awareness among policy makers and professionals in the disability service arena. In this growing new discipline, ‘disability’ is defined as a fundamentally social, cultural, political, historical and relational phenomenon.
Literature in Disability studies in the last two decades is found to be enriched with materialist, feminist and postmodern/post-structural perspectives in understanding disability. In brief, materialist perspective dealt with the relationship between disability and the economy. The feminist perspective underlined the importance of understanding the personal experience of disability and its relevance to disability politics and the postmodern/post-structural perspective looked at issues of history, culture, and language with regard to disability.
All these perspectives sought to provide various and sometimes complementary ways of understanding disability. In this section emergence of disability studies has been initially elaborated. Secondly, understanding of disability from the above mentioned perspectives has been explored in some depth.
a) The Rise of Disability Studies
As seen above, till the 1960s, disability issues were located within medical, rehabilitation and psychological disciplines. As per these disciplines, disability issues were pathologized as a medical situation and were treated as an isolated, deviant, or abnormal illness, disease, physical appearance and/or affected his or her mental or intellectual abilities (Mitchell and Sndyer, 1997). Later, involvement of the World Health Organization and other national and international agencies in the definition and interpretation of disability and impairment, and also in the delivery of services and economic resources has been also observed (Pfeiffer, 1993).
On the other hand, the disability rights movement that began in the United States and United Kingdom succeeded in radically changing public policies with respect to people with impairments. Through well-organized political actions by different national and international disability organizations, people with disabilities drove a significant shift in society‘s conception of disability, and the role of government with respect to people with impairments. These two significant events have helped to change the notion disability was a medical condition, as well as helped to set a socio-political component to the research that would lead to disability studies. By the end of the 20th century, disability scholarship showed inclusion of the lived experiences and problems of disability scholars and activists. As both a critique of the medicalised model and marginalization associated with disability, the social model of disability was developed.
b) Social Model of Disability
Under the social model, the lived experiences of persons with disabilities would be viewed as cultural narratives that challenged the medical approach by illustrating that the disability experience was a socially constructed phenomenon equivalent to that of gender, class or race. The lived experience was also an issue of social oppression, exclusion, and alienation by members of an able-bodied society.
This model plays a major role in disability studies and is fundamental to the theoretical positions of movements of the disabled people. In Oliver‘s account, the social model ‘does not deny the problem of disability but locates it squarely within society’ (Oliver & Sapey, 2006). Disabled Peoples International (DPI), which has opposed the WHO classification, has defined disability as:
“The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people with impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities”.
Similarly, the social model challenges the paradigm of normality by simultaneously accepting the disabled body as a fact and by rejecting it as an object of deviance and abnormality. Disability is now seen wholly and exclusively as a social issue.
In contrast to social constructivist, the dominant medical model has focused on individual perceived impairments, referring to functional norms of behaviours and performance. According to these views, an individual suffers disadvantage due to a recognized deficit – defined and diagnosed by clinical science – within his or her body or mind. Therefore, the social model forces one to turn one’s attention away from defining who is or is not disabled in identifying and addressing the barriers which in a given society restricts disabled people‘s participation in ‘normal’ life. Hence, the management of the problem requires social action, and it is the collective responsibility of the society to make friendly environments, modifications necessary for the full participation of persons with disabilities in all areas of social life.
The social model presents a positive disability identity. This model assumes that the perception in society should be changed, and this is part of the process of political empowerment of disabled people. To a great extent, this model fights against social exclusion and demands ways and means for inclusion of people with disabilities. It gained wider recognition among activists and academics.
While the social model of disability serves as a successful theoretical basis for emancipatory politics that emphasize on redistributing power and fighting exclusion, it has got several critiques (Terzi, 2004). Firstly, this model has been criticized for presenting a narrow perspective of impairment by considering largely the problems of physically impaired people and excluding the people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and others who experience severe problems in dealing with their impairments. For those who experience severe conditions of impairments, it is harder to deny the negative consequences of impairments.
Shakespeare (2000) argues that all limitations in an individual‘s ability to participate in society are caused by social organizations. It does not recognize any disability which might not be removed by some appropriate change in social arrangements. The critics of this model asserted that impairment is still to be negotiated as it manifests its lack of function and other limitations, which are real problems that cannot be ignored.
However, in declaring that disability is a form of social oppression and is socially caused, the social model of disability raises a series of new sociological questions such as how can this socially observable fact be theorized or what is its social history? In 1980s, some of the British thinkers in disability studies sought answers to these questions in Marxist or materialist paradigms (Finkelstein, 1980; Oliver, 1990). With this growing interest in disability studies, these influential ideas have been challenged by a growing number of writers of disability studies especially in areas such as feminism(s), postmodernism and post-structuralism (Thomas, 1999). In this section, an attempt has been made to explore the lively debate about the nature of both disability and impairment and some of the key issues.
c) Materialist perspective in disability studies
Some of the writers on disability, like Vic Finkelstein and Mike Oliver, further developed the social model of disability by overlaying a Marxist theoretical perspective (Oliver, 1990). Marxism has had an influence on the endeavor of persons with impairments to remove them from the oppressive nature of society. Therefore, Marxism can be utilized as a means to better understand the structural disadvantages that exist for disabled people in a capitalist society.
Oliver states that industrial capitalism is at the root of the social exclusion of persons with disabilities by non-disabled people (Barnes, Oliver, and Barton, 2002). Capitalism and the changes in the mode of production have brought about changes in social relations which have had a major effect on the lives of people with disabilities. With the growth of large-scale industries, the people with impairments in Britain began to be systematically excluded from direct involvement in economic activity. Long hours of labor in factory environments required standardized dexterity, speed and intensity of work.
As a result, many people with impairments were unable to fit into the work requirements of labor market within a capitalist system. These people were not only excluded from the workforce, but those who did not fit into the expectations of capability society were removed completely and were placed in different institutions so as to suffer economic and social exclusion (Barnes, Oliver, and Barton. 2002).
Thus, it suggests that disability is a product of economic and social force of capitalism. Further, it leads to the ideological construction of persons with impairments which is not only opposite of the normal-bodied and normal-minded people, but allows for the medicalization of disability as the individual problem (Oliver, 1990).
Both medical professionals and rehabilitation industries continued to influence policies for persons with impairments and remain closely linked to the ideology of capitalist society or able-bodied people. It reflected the oppression of people within the more conventional Marxist analysis of social relations and the concept of class. Therefore, the Marxist view of the disabled, in a light of oppression which is a structural concept where the limitations of material resources and power relations in society leads to lack of opportunities compared with the able-bodied (Barnes and Mercer, 2003).
If people with impairments were viewed collectively, an impartial society would be recognized and social policies alleviating oppression would be introduced (Oliver, 1990). Therefore, society is structured in the interests of the majority of the able-bodied people so that disability becomes a form of oppression (Abberley, 1998). Once it is acknowledged that disability is defined in the framework of oppression, only then would disabled people be seen as a group, rather than as individuals.
Thus, the Marxist perspective suggests that change can only come from people with impairments and not from policy makers or medical professionals. The outcome will be policies that focus on alleviating oppression instead of looking at helping the individual. The message of the social model view is that society has to change and it is the individual with disabilities who will bring change, not policy makers, politicians or the medical and rehabilitation professionals (Oliver, 1990).
However, Scholte (2000) suggested that materialist writers in disability studies need to update their analysis as per the contemporary developments in capitalist society (Sapey, 2000). There are several questions like do people with impairments now occupy different relationship to the wage labor economy such as with rapid growth of industries, new technologies, and inventions or has it opened up new exclusions and dependencies one needs to examine. The analysis of such questions has begun in disability studies but a great deal remains to be examined (Beresford and Holden, 2000).
d) Feminist Perspective to Disability:
Jenny Morris developed the feminist perspective to disability in the early 1990s. Under this perspective, the feminists remain engaged in the process of building in feminist ideas so as to further understand disability. Disability feminists recognized the importance of personal experiences of disability. They focused on experiences of women with disabilities associated with the inferior status of their gender and social roles. Perhaps women with disability occupy different kinds of social locations in relation to disabled men since they have priorities not addressed in conventional social model thinking (Morris, 1993).
Wider feminist thinking had fragmented into several feminisms; each linked to other theoretical ideas, some materialistic and some social constructionist perspectives. The shift in feminist research and theorizing disability helped in better understanding of oppression of women with disabilities. Further, Thomas (2001) stated that feminist perspective on disability addressed the failure of the social model to accept the importance of the personal experience of both disability and impairment. Secondly, it also accepted that some of the limitations or barriers of activity are caused by the effects of impairment and cannot be causally accredited to ‘social barriers’ (Oliver, 1996).
Although feminist perspective to disability appreciated the positive side of the social model, it underlined its restricted capacity to identify the relationship between impairment, disability and experience, and related them to disability politics (Barnes, 1998; Finkelstein, 2001).
e) Post-Modernist Perspective in Disability Studies:
Post-modernist perspective was developed based on the philosophy which challenged the concept of objectivity and emphasized discourse (Corker and Shakespeare, 2002). Post-modernist theorists view disability as constructed ‘within linguistic, discursive, and cultural practices‘ rather than based in a fixed or objective ‘true’ characteristic or status of a person with disability (Thomas, 2004).
As per this perspective, disability is no longer considered as a definitive physical condition but a condition developed and defined by social norms and perceptions of the able-bodied. For example, being a person with visual impairment is a condition where a person cannot see, but it is dependent on social norms and discourse to identify it as a disability. This perspective recognized the importance of understanding able-bodied perceptions and social norms with regard to both disability and people with disabilities. It opposes the homogenous view of grouping people with disabilities.
As a result, this allows the analysis of power relation and inequality within groups of people with impairments such as inequality of power between individuals with mild and severe disabilities; males and females with impairments; rich and poor people with disabilities. One of the major limitations of this perspective is the denial of an objective view of disability which may raise problems in addressing impairments and practical day-to-day requirements owing to physical and functional differences.
In summary, as has been discussed in earlier perspectives, the feminist perspective recognized the importance of impairments and suggested that it becomes a concern within disability studies. In contrast, Oliver (1996) has stated that sociology of impairment may well constitute a field of study but impairment is not the business of disability studies. But not all writers of disability study accepted this stance.
Paul Abberely (1987, 1996) opposed the social modelist naturalization of impairment through its relegation to the realm of the biological. He has drawn consideration to the ‘real’ social production of impairment. He argues that impairment is produced through numerous social activities and other practices, including wars, medical mistakes, accidents and injury in work-places, accidents in transportation and so forth (Thomas, 1999). Thus, Abberely argues that impairment is as much social as it is biological. This is an important argument suggesting that disability studies should include the study of both disability and impairment.
After understanding the debates in disability studies, the researcher feels still a considerable amount of research and theorizing lies ahead in disability studies. Many issues, including impact of globalization; disability in developing societies, information and communication technology, independent living, welfare system change, civil rights and so forth, need to be studied (Barnes and Mercer, 2003). However, it should not be forgotten that it is the radical edge, and its relevance to people with disabilities in our communities’ hinges on its ability to maintain its close alliance and involvement with the ongoing political struggle of people with disabilities.
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