29 Mar

Exploring Disability ten years on

Posted By Politybooks

Ten years after the publication of the first edition of the groundbreaking Exploring Disability, the second edition has just been released. Here Colin Barnes (Professor of Disability Studies at the Universities of Leeds and Halmstad, Sweden) surveys the advances and continuing challenges facing the field over the last decade… 

A decade ago, a socio/political or ‘social model’ of disability – inspired by an understanding of the economic, political and social deprivations encountered by people with accredited impairments and labelled ‘disabled’ – was hardly visible within mainstream sociology and related disciplines. Today it stands centre stage alongside sociological explanations of racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of social oppression and inequality.

The last decade has witnessed a growing number of undergraduate and post-graduate courses in the general area of ‘Disability Studies’ at both the national and international levels. This has been accompanied by the establishment of specialist centres, journals and professional chairs in disability and related fields. Globally, the rise in interest in disability has been equally phenomenal. In 2010, for example, there are international Disability Studies conferences in Honolulu, Montréal, Philadelphia, and Tokyo. The UK Disability Studies Network holds its fifth international event this September at the University of Lancaster. All of which has generated considerable debate and discussion about the relevance and utility of social-model-inspired theorizing and research for the 21st century within the academy and beyond.

At the same time, social-model-inspired insights are firmly established in government and policy circles and official documents in Britain and elsewhere. Important examples in the UK include the setting up of the ‘Disability Rights Commission’in 2000, the Cabinet Office report Improving Life Chances for Disabled People (2005) and the setting up of the Government’s ‘Office of Disability Issues’ in 2007 and their assertion that ‘by 2025 disabled people in Britain should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality of life and will be respected and included as equal members of society’ (Cabinet Office 2005: 5). Similar assertions are implicit at the European level (Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities, 2003) and internationally with the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Yet despite these initiatives, exclusion rather than inclusion into the mainstream of economic and social life remains a constant feature of the everyday lived experience of the overwhelming majority of disabled people and their families. The numbers of disabled people have increased significantly over recent years. Yet barriers to inclusion in education, employment and mainstream leisure and social activities are still prevalent. Consequently disabled people remain the ‘poorest of the poor’ in all societies. The situation is especially dire in the poorer nations of the ‘developing’ world where health and disability-related support services are almost non- existent.

Moreover, public attitudes toward the meaningful inclusion of disabled people are now seriously undermined by the recent resurgence of interest in eugenic-type solutions to the problem of disability which many claim threaten their very existence. Examples include developments in bio-medicine, prenatal screening and the growing trend toward the legalization of ‘assisted suicide’ for people with ‘serious handicaps’ and or ‘terminal illness’.

All this has created a heady mix of progress coupled with new and continuing demands for change which has inspired the new edition ten years on.

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The second edition of Exploring Disability has been completely re-written and expanded to take account of these developments. As in its predecessor, the book’s 10 chapters focus on the increasingly complex relationship between theory, policy and practice and on-going struggle for meaningful change. It concludes with Chapter 9 which addresses recent ethical debates surrounding ‘Disability and the Right to Life’ and Chapter 10 which centres on global perspectives on ‘Disability and Development’. The book will prove to be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the growing controversies surrounding the struggle for human rights and equality for those sections of the population who are unfortunate enough to be labelled ‘disabled’.