Incompatible ways to Zion: politics and morality in disability studies

 Halvor Hanisch, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Oslo University Hospital, Norway

In disability studies, research is tightly intertwined with politics and morality. The field has, to quote Carol Thomas, ‘social oppresssion as its analytical signature’. Disability studies is characterized by a twofold critical commitment; to investigate oppression and exclusion, and to contribute to empowering and inclusive processes in our society.

This commitment has produced several turns and debates in the history of disability studies, dealing with paradigms like ’emancipatory research’, ‘standpoint epistemology’ and many others. Without discussing them in detail, it seems clear that disability studies is committed to two different norms:

  • Norm 1: Disability studies should analyze exclusion and disabling processes.
  • Norm 2: Disability studies should, as social practice, in itself be a form of inclusion.

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Telling the story? The Commodification of Impairment and Disability in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone

Maria Berghs, PhD, research fellow, University of York, UK

“You get me? You need to start filming people. That way people will see!” said Mohammed in criticism of my work. In post-conflict Sierra Leone, people like Mohammed had a sophisticated understanding of research. Due to a mediatised war and post-conflict relief economy, people disabled by a ten year civil conflict (1991-2002) had a lot of contact with a plethora of journalists, photographers, film-makers, health care professionals, lawyers, non-governmental organisations, missionaries, government workers and researchers. This also entailed high expectations.

Writing and photography were outdated modes of social action and disabled people now expected to be seen (i.e. on YouTube or in films) and speak directly to an audience. The biggest apprehensions they voiced were about whether research was actually going to benefit them, just elites or myself (Berghs 2012)? Despite social activism most people reiterated that impairment was ‘their problem’ and ‘survival’ was still their primary concern. There were also huge differences between educated male elites and people living in neglected rural areas, like orphans taken up in an extended family or illiterate women. Continue reading

Can special education make a difference?

Rune Sarromaa Hausstätter, PhD, Lillehammer University College, Norway

When placed in special education, the famous philosopher and cartoon hero Bart Simpson expressed his concern about the challenge he was supposed to overcome: how can I catch up the others by working slow? The concern expressed by Bart points at a serious challenge facing the area of special education. In a historical context, special education was offered, not as an alternative, but as a solution for groups of children that were not accepted by the ordinary educational system.  As the goal of creating a school for all children became a major political goal, the role of special education changed. The special school system continued to exist, but after the Second World War special education changed from being only an alternative located in special schools to also become an educational support system for ordinary teaching.

The role and success of special education as a support system for ordinary teaching is the topic in one of my recent articles, (1), published in the Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research together with Marjatta Takala. The Finnish PISA results are another reason why we wanted to write this article. It is stated in several articles that one reason for the Finnish PISA success is the use of special education as an active support for children who struggle with school topics. In other words, it seems like the Finnish school system, at least partly, have solved the problem raised by Bart Simpson. The Finnish system is in this article compared with the Norwegian special educational system. Continue reading

Assisted Dying in Canada

Christopher A. Riddle, Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Director of the Institute of Applied Ethics, Utica College, NY, USA, email:

Nearing the end of 2011, The Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on EndofLife Decision Making released a detailed report exploring both the feasibility as well as desirability of making assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia legally permissible.  A report with similar recommendations was also released not long after by a Select Committee of the Quebec National Assembly on Dying with Dignity.  Both reports, while strongly recommending palliative care, ultimately suggested that assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia should be legally permissible.  This has understandably sparked a heated debate across the country.  My intention here is to support, albeit briefly, the findings of these reports.  While there are many objections to these reports, including, but not limited to the legal, religious, and medical, I will focus on what I view to be the most common concern expressed by disability theorists and advocates.

Margaret Somerville, a Catholic, legal scholar at McGillUniversity, expressed a concern in Canada’s National Post that seems to be echoed throughout disability literature on the topic. Continue reading

What about Global South?

Hisayo Katsui, Senior Researcher, Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Following the United Nations (UN) Decade of Disabled Persons between 1983-1992, the first African Decade of Persons with Disabilities started in 1999 and ended in 2009. The first Continental Plan of Action of the African Decade states in its Introduction, “The UN Decade of Disabled Persons had its successes and failures…its successes which were more pronounced in the northern hemisphere than elsewhere.” This was the primary reason why the Asia and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons (1993-2002), the Arab Decade of Disabled Persons (2003-2012), and the African Decade started. Both the Asia and Pacific and the African Decades were extended for another decade. Now that more than 110 countries around the globe have ratified the Convention, has there been significant positive change in the lives of persons with disabilities at grass roots in the global South? This writing is related to what Tom Shakespeare addressed and further provoked by Kristín Björnsdóttir but in the context of global South. Continue reading

From Prenatal screening to “After birth abortion”

Róisín Dermody, independent researcher and disability activist, Dublin, Ireland

Abortion is a highly contentious issue when the debate focuses on a woman’s right to choose and the right to life of the unborn child.  However, when the decision to abort is based on the detection of an impairment during prenatal screening, the debate takes on a whole new perspective. And now, we are asked to consider the case of “After birth Abortion”.

On the 23rd February 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article by  Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva which advocates for “after birth abortion” on the basis that:

1. Neither foetuses nor newborns have the same moral status as actual persons,

2. The fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and

3. Adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day 1st May 2012

 Hannah Morgan, Lecturer in Disability Studies, Lancaster University, UK

1st May is celebrated throughout the Nordic countries and beyond as a day of celebration and activism linked to our shared heritage in the international labour movement.  Since 2006 it has also become Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) coordinated by Diary of a Goldfish (1). The purpose of the day is to raise ‘awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we’ve made’.  As a discipline, an inter-disciplinary area of study or community of practice (depending on your perspective, we are nothing if not a broad church) Disability Studies has much to celebrate and affirm. Continue reading

Pride versus blame: reflections on neurodiversity

Simo Vehmas, Professor of Special Education, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, President of NNDR

In this blog entry, I will discuss very briefly two related and controversial questions that, in my view, arise from the neurodiversity perspective: first, whether neurodiversity has an organic basis, and secondly, whether it is a significant factor regarding responsibility for one’s actions.

Many neurodiversity activists argue that, for example, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are real conditions, with an organic basis (while some neurodiversity/anti-psychiatry activists say exactly the opposite). Autism, for example, is a matter of different form of brain wiring, something that is very much real and has consequences to one’s behavior. In this respect, neurodiversity has a somewhat different outlook on disability than disability studies perspective, which emphasizes primarily the social nature of the definition of bodily and mental differences. Some scholars and thinkers representing a ‘postmodern’ viewpoint go as far as questioning the definite reality of impairment: everything’s socially constructed, so it makes no sense to talk about impairments as ‘real entities’ that exist independently of our interpretations about them. Continue reading

“Our biggest worry was it could be born a Tory…”; disabled parents on TV!

Philippa Rieck, PhD researcher, Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research, University of Glasgow, UK

Channel 4 in the UK has currently been running the very popular ‘One Born Every Minute’ which attempts to show the ‘real life drama’ that occurs in the labour ward. The show is pivoted on the notion that it represents ‘every day women’s’ experiences of childbirth and of the maternity ward. Whilst interviewing a participant for my PhD research around the experience of citizenship and the body she said “You know that programme one born every minute, well you don’t see any disabled women on it having babies do you? Do disabled people just not have kids…if that show is filmed over a year in a maternity hospital then where are the disabled people?”. Most of the women I spoke to made some kind of reference to the lack of knowledge around disability and pregnancy which has, for them, resulted in a built up fear and a real feeling of exclusion from this realm. Continue reading

Disability Knowledge on the Road Ahead: thoughts from a conference in Denmark

Bjarne Bjelke Jensen, Consultant, The National Resource Centre on Disability and Social Psychiatry, Denmark

On February 9th 2012, a rather unique event took place in Denmark. The Danish “Resource Centre on Disability and Social Psychiatry” arranged a conference on knowledge arenas in the disability field in the years to come – mainly with reference to the intersection of research and practice.

The purpose of the conference was to place disability into a larger perspective than is usually the case in a Danish context, where we have no real disability studies environment. The Danish NNDR network is the closest thing to an entity trying to connect the various social research entries in the disability field. Entries, that tend to be singular projects, somewhat isolated. Continue reading