Critical Sociologies of Disability Within and Beyond the Academy: Some Post Conference Reflections

Image: Thomas Martinsen

Wednesday 2nd August, 2017

Francesca Peruzzo

Would you be able to put the thrill of presenting your own research, your own findings, and your own applied analytical methods in two important international conferences within your field of studies into words? Funding from the Sociological Review Foundation allowed me to attend two of the most prominent conferences on disability in Europe in July 2017, and so that is what I will seek to do in this short reflection.

Before diving into a reflective account of my experiences, it is necessary to briefly introduce myself, and of course, my research. I am a sociologist of education who has been working in the field of disability for ten years now. I was a disabled students’ assistant throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, completing my MA with a dissertation on an ethnographic account of the concepts of participation and autonomy of disabled people in society. My first-hand experience of disability in academic settings, underpinned by the epistemological approach of the Social Model of Disability, brought me to question the nature of disability in Italian higher education institutions. Is disability a medical domain or does society play a role in fashioning and producing it?

The fact that the Social Model of Disability was not well known and researched in Italy led me to the United Kingdom, and here I have been pursuing doctoral research at the Institute of Education, University College London.

My PhD is nearing completion and whilst I maintain interests in the social construction of disability, my approach to disability has matured to encompass a richer and more reflective perspective on the object. I am interested in the ontology of disability in Italian higher education systems. By this, I mean the modalities in which disability emerges as a problem to be governed within the academic milieu, the practices that constitute disability as an object of policy, the regulations that follow, and the exclusionary processes result. Disabled students are the subjects of practices, and their subjectivities are moulded by the modalities in which power/knowledge relations shape their conduct. Bringing together Foucauldian post-structuralism and Critical Disability Studies, and combining ethnographic methods with discourse analysis, I am developing an analytical method called disability dispositif that holistically investigates, and critically informs, the regime of power/knowledge practices that cast disabled students as subjects of exclusionary processes in higher education.

The two conferences I attended were a perfect match for my intellectual leanings and practical commitments. The first conference was based in Liverpool Hope University, hosted by the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies, and titled ‘Disability and Disciplines: the International Conference on Educational, Cultural and Disability Studies’. Focussed on disability as an interdisciplinary object of research, the cultural approach to disability studies, as David Bolt remarks in the Conference programme, aims ‘to the erosion of ableism and disablism in culture and society’, by stimulating innovative curricular reforms and influencing social attitudes. Post-modern, post-structural, post-human and post-colonial approaches to disability placed the conference squarely in between the struggles of disabled bodies and their refusal of the ways they have been spoken and governed by present knowledges. 'Disability is terrain of contested knowledges in the present Post-Truth Era', remarked McRuer argued in his keynote speech at the end of the first day, which captured the everyday local struggles of disabled people in a world of global austerity politics. His speech elegantly and powerfully engaged with the generative interlocking of transnational queer disability theory and movements of resistance to challenge austerity politics and imagine new modalities of living disability.

Taking a local dimension, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder in their closing keynote speech engaged with the more personal dimension, masterfully applying post-humanist theory to the embodied experience of disability. Arguing for a theory that ‘creates forms of local knowledge’, the two authors engaged with post-humanist tools to explore the assemblage of practices, modes of being, subjectivities and ethics that produce the disabled body. The post-human exploration of the subject informed the social model of disability, transforming it, as they said 'into something more than a tool of environmental diagnosis of barriers and oppression'.

The second conference was held at the University of Lausanne. Organised by the European Society for Disability Research, it was titled ‘Disability, Recognition and “Community Living”. Diversity of practices and Plurality of Values’.

The focus of the conference addressed more specifically the European context, presenting multidisciplinary accounts of national, regional and cantonal disability research. Aiming to discuss disability from both practical and theoretical points of view, the sessions focused on a variety of topics, including: inclusion, participation, citizenship and human rights; employment and disability movements; advocacy and identity politics; universal design, technology and materiality, and methods in disability research.

Carrie Sandahl’s opening of the conference harmoniously bridged the ‘post- ‘approaches to disciplines and culture that I found in Liverpool with Lausanne’s intent of addressing of disability. With her keynote opening speech she made a case for rethinking Disability Art, performance and culture, in such a way that disabled people, Other and Same, can encounter by ‘fully inhabiting both the mainstream and the margins of society’.

The variety of papers presented during the first day was outstanding. Anne Waldschmit and Marie Sépulchre's discussion on the concept of citizenship and its different nuances when applied to disability research made specific claims towards a more thorough reflection on the ambivalent meaning of the term when it comes to define disabled people according to the citizenry frame. Her paper informed the plenary discussion that concluded the first day. A panel of four different practitioners in the field of disability discussed the different policy and practical approaches to the issue in promoting disabled people’s participation in Switzerland.

I presented my paper on the second day, in a panel on Methods in Disability Research. My presentation about rethinking the regimes of practices governing disability in academia informatively engaged with the other paper presented on my same panel about power relations in practice research. Professor Berg Berit, by presenting an applied Foucauldian approach to researching extensive services in peoples’ home, nicely joined action research with practitioner-led enquiry and development projects to analyse new modalities intended to provide equality in services to disabled people.

The afternoon sessions ranged from presentations on education for girls with disabilities in Kenya to disability in cinema and arts. Ruth Kitchen, through her paper ‘Theorizing Social Understanding and Representations of Deafness and Deaf People through Cinema’ put forward an empowering approach to deafness in filmmaking, considering filmmakers’ engagement with sign language and Deaf viewpoints on the process of filming and acting.

The conference was powerfully closed by Anne Waldschmidt’s keynote speech, which addressed the Cultural Social Model of Disability discussed by a number of scholars in Liverpool two days previously. By claiming the need to investigate beyond the sole social and human rights approaches to disability, she argued for a cultural approach to dis/ability. Her paper outlined the steps for moving beyond architectural accessibility and legal rights to research disability and its generative reproduction through shifting power relations.

The two conferences made me feel part of a bigger community of scholars that are researching disability through the challenging and critical lens of ‘post-‘ approaches. The positive response to my paper on the disability dispositif in higher education built my self-confidence, making me feel that I am pursuing valuable and innovative research that will constructively informed the field of study I have chosen. I want to thank again the Sociological Review Foundation for such valuable opportunity.

Francesca Peruzzo is a sociologist of education and a disability activist. She is PhD candidate and Associate Teaching Fellow in the Department of Education, Practice and Society at the UCL Institute of Education. You can find her occasionally on Twitter @FraPeruzzo.

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