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.
For me, one of the greatest strengths of Disability Studies has been its grounding in the experiences of disabled people and its varied connections with the disabled people’s movement. Disability Studies retains a strong commitment to identifying and recording incidences and practices of disablism. It seeks to provide a knowledge base underpinned with a firm academic rigour alongside a commitment to social justice at a time when other fields have lost this connection and commitment to their roots and constituency. We are a discipline who knows which side we are on.
Work undertaken by disability scholars, often in partnership with disability organisations, has had a radical impact on the way in which disability is understood from the micro-scale of group homes to global organisations like the WHO. Our conferences, seminars and other activities frequently bring together academics, policy makers and activists to debate issues of immediate and vital concern to disabled people as well as to set academic and research agendas for the longer term. The form accountability provided this engagement with activists, service users and disabled people’s organisations whereby our work is interrogated by those to whom it matters most means that disability studies is stronger and richer as a result.
In many ways Disability Studies is flourishing, our main journals Disability& Society and the Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research are highly regarded and the NNDR and UK-based Lancaster Conferences are vibrant and well attended. Financial pressures and the neo-liberal turn in higher education (2) are undoubtedly impacting on all of us working, or seeking to work, in academia with often particularly negative consequences for disabled academics and researchers. We do, however, retain a privileged position compared to those disabled people outside of the academy. The sustained attack that disabled people find themselves under throughout the world in this ‘age of austerity’ is well documented. Jackie Leach Scully’s recent post Death by a thousand cuts highlighted the way in which disabled people in the UK are being disproportionately affected by cuts to public spending and by wider welfare ‘reform’. A potentially more pernicious factor is the way in which disabled people are increasingly subject to harassment and abuse in public (3) and the media (4) giving apparent credence to populist discourses about fraud, laziness and the so-called lack of contribution made by those disabled people out of work.
As Disability Studies academics, researchers and students we need to constantly revisit and renew the contribution we can make to challenging disablism in the current economic and political climate. My point here is not to suggest those of us in the academy should take up sackcloth and ashes and indulge in self-flagellation, this does nothing to alleviate the disadvantage and discrimination being experienced. Instead, as my colleague Karen Soldatic and I have argued elsewhere (5), in a context of public sector retrenchment, the dominance of neo-liberal discourses and the divide and rule politics currently being played out by those in power, academics need to increasingly engage in a type of public intellectualism. This is not about personal status or posturing but rather about considering how we can put our skills, research know-how and knowledge and to its best use in challenging disablism. Making our research available via a range of open access formats for all and sundry to see, is critical to ensure that disabled activists and advocates has access to rigorous empirical research that highlight the effects of such disablist processes. Further, it provides their arguments with a high degree of credibility, an essential feature of all well-organised social justice campaigns.
Blogging in response to a current issue or to take research findings to a wider audience provides precisely the sort of opportunity for rigorous debate and discussion our discipline thrives upon. There is also much to be gained from posts and other material provided online by disabled people. For example Debby Jolly’s piece A Tale of two Models: Disabled People vs Unum, Atos, Government and Disability Charities (6) provides a stringent critique of the way in which the bio-psychosocial model is being used to justify the indignities of the work capability assessment. Similarly blogs like Benefit Scrounging Scum (7) provide access to compelling accounts of living on the front line of what increasingly feels like a war of attrition against disabled people and serve as a constant reminder of the purpose of Disability Studies: to identify and challenge disablism whenever and wherever it occurs and to contribute to disabled people’s discussions about the development of inclusive discourses, practices and spaces.
There is much to be proud of in Disability Studies, we should celebrate and affirm the contribution the discipline has made while continuing to look forward to how we can maintain our commitment to eradicating disablism.
(5) Presentations to the Social Work Action Network Conference and to the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds, April 2012