Research on disability and equality in the Nordic countries

 Bodil Ravneberg (secretary of NNDR board), Senior researcher, Uni Rokkansenteret, Bergen, Norway

As a result of increased immigration to Scandinavia from countries outside the EU and North America since the 1980’s, traditional concepts of equality and gender have been challenged and criticised in the Nordic countries. New research has been called for in order to include issues related not only to gender, but also to immigration, ethnicity, sexuality and class. I have read some of the new literature on gender inequalities, welfare, childcare and parenting from Norway and the other Nordic countries. I agree with researchers who state that the Nordic welfare states have achieved a great deal with regard to gender equality. To a great extent, there is a consensus of opinion in favour of the Nordic countries having been successful in promoting a women-friendly gender-inclusive model of citizenship.
However, many researchers point out that some women are losing out despite this inclusive model of citizenship. This aroused my curiosity because I wondered how women with disabilities are included in this new research undertaken by mainstream feminist and welfare researchers.

In the first place, contemporary research on equality issues seems to expand the traditional, and somewhat narrow, concept of gender equality. Implications of immigration and marriage immigration have been studied, as well as the issues that adoptive families, immigrant families, lesbian families and homosexual families are struggling with in their daily lives. The research is concerned with how these family constellations are being interpreted and represented within the frameworks of the traditional hegemonic and hetero-normative Nordic equality model and the resulting consequences for policies regarding these families. The researchers claim that a partly-distorted, simple and biased picture of many of these family constellations prevails, and changes in attitudes and measures are asked for in order to change such problematic representations. Interesting books on these issues are, for example, Complying with Colonialism. Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region by Suvi Keskinen, Salla Tuori, Sari Irni and Diana Mulinari (ed.) (2009), Changing Relations of Welfare. Family, Gender and Migration in Britain and Scandinavia by Birte Siim and Anette Borchurst (2011), Cash-for-childcare: the consequences for caring mothers by Jorma Sipilä, Katja Repo and Tapio Rissanen (ed.) (2010) and Politicising parenthood in Scandinavia. Gender relations in welfare states by Anne Lise Ellingsæter and Arnlaug Leira (2006).

It is a good thing that broad research on equality issues related to immigration and multicultural challenges is a growing research field in the Nordic countries. What puzzles me as I read more of the literature is that disabled people and their experiences are not focussed on, not even within the new research approach to equality and gender issues. Moreover, disabled women and their life situations are not included in the research. The topic of disability is ignored or hardly mentioned. As far as I have read, disabled women and their families are not visible in the Nordic mainstream research on gender and equality issues. Their participation in knowledge production, their life situations and their experiences are more or less non-existent. Stereotypical pictures that for a long time have drawn negative pictures and made misrepresentations of disabled women as dependent, subordinate and helpless have so far not been challenged within mainstream research. It is startling that disabled people are still being marginalised within gender and welfare research in general despite the growing interest in multicultural challenges, especially by and among feminist researchers.

Traditionally, within gender and welfare research the focus used to be on gender equality between working heterosexual men and women with responsibility for small children. Challenges for other families, such as immigrant families or families with two mothers, was not a topic ten or twenty years ago. Neither was topics related to life courses, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. The new research that is taking place today dwells on these issues but there are still many topics that are not being examined, and disability is disappointingly still one of them.