Presidential address (of some sort)

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

NNDR has been since its foundation in 1997 a relatively loose network that has had mainly two functions: arranging biennial congresses and publishing The Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research. NNDR thus has been a kind of god-parent of national disability research networks and societies where the actual work has been done. The role of NNDR has been to provide a forum for the researchers in Nordic countries to present their work for an international audience. Our conferences have always been multidisciplinary events where the diversity of viewpoints is welcomed and celebrated. The same goes for SJDR as well. NNDR hasn’t supported a uniform research agenda that would automatically exclude some viewpoints. I think this a great strength of NNDR and something we should strive to maintain

Nordic countries are united in various historical, cultural and social ties. In context of disability, the Nordic welfare state with its strong commitment to equality has given us a political foundation to improve the social and political inclusion of people with impairments. Despite the various merits of this tradition, it has had its downsides regarding disability as well. Disability research and policy have mostly been directed by the views and interests of professionals and academics. Disabled people themselves have been at the margins when services to support their well-being have been organized, and research agendas have been constructed.

The marginal status of disabled people applies to NNDR as well. Whatever the various reasons for this are, I believe we should strive to include people with impairments more effectively. Tom Shakespeare has criticized British disability studies, and especially the social model of disability, for being too political: too often the horse before the disability carriage has been politics, not science. In the case of Nordic disability research tradition, Shakespeare’s criticism could be altered in the following way: too often the horse before the disability carriage has been science, or various professional interests (e.g., those of physicians, teachers and psychologists), while disabled people themselves have been left out of the carriage altogether.

Despite the many strengths of the Nordic tradition, academics in the Nordic countries have probably been too cautious to ally themselves with the disability movement. As a result, disability activists have been sceptical about the uses of research because they have felt that our work hasn’t been informed properly by the concerns of disabled people themselves.

In my view, Nordic academics should have closer contact to disability movement and be politically more engaged. But when it comes to research, political engagement must be directed by academic conventions of proper scholarship. Purpose-oriented research that is dictated by political motives is untenable academically, but it is also politically useless in the long run.

Finland, my remote and marginal motherland, has in no way been exemplary regarding disability research.  Our research has been very much dominated by a professional, and thus, an individualistic, psycho-medical viewpoint. Only during the past five years or so, research based on the understanding of disability as a social phenomenon has started to get organized. But sometimes being late and overly cautious can have positive outcomes. I believe that this has been the case in Finland.

The disability movement has been an integral part from the very beginning in 2006 of the Finnish Society for Disability Research and its activity. We have managed to establish a fruitful basis for developing disability research where academics and activists work in collaboration. The success of this collaboration requires, naturally, division of labour based on the competence of each party.

Political engagement is especially important during these turbulent times we are witnessing at the moment. In Finland, for instance, there is a growing hostility towards various marginal groups such as ethnic and sexual minorities. So far, this hostility hasn’t extended to disabled people but the current atmosphere can be seen worrying from disabled people’s perspective as well. This is because it is typical in the current political rhetoric to label, for example, immigrants and sexual minorities as threats of some sort to the legitimate cultural status quo. Those who do not fit into this status quo are regarded as  marginal or undesirable form of human life.

Some of this rhetoric has a disturbing resemblance with the eugenic sentiments common in Nordic countries during the first half of the 20th century. Disabled people are unlikely to be safe and equal in a culture that is eager to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and to exclude ‘them’ in whatever way from society and human dignity.

5 thoughts on “Presidential address (of some sort)

  1. Amu Urhonen

    It’d be very important and interesting to create dialogue between politics and research, like prof. Vehmas is implying here. I suggested in the National Disability Council of Finland that we’d talk about disability research in this year’s annual meeting of local disability councils. The response from the other members (representing disability organizations) was all negative. The common opinion was that research is way too boring and difficult for the members of local disability councils. I see a problem, here.

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  2. Simo Vehmas

    Research literature is indeed often boring and too difficult – even for us academics. But I suppose that’s okay, to some extent. Not all research needs to be accessible to everybody as long as researchers bother every now and then to communicate their work in an accessible manner. But it is difficult and laborous, so that’s why we tend to do it too seldomly. Besides, even if research is reported in an accessible manner, many people would still find it boring. That is perfectly understandable and acceptable. And I suppose many activists are suspicious of the uses of research regarding politics. So, perhaps there is a problem, of some sort. But we shouldn’t give up, should we?

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  3. Amu Urhonen

    Absolutely no reason to give up! My point was that the research maybe has an image problem. Also, a sense of undermining the local disability activists could can be seen in the attitude of the national council. I think research like yours could offer something very interesting to many of them.

    There’s a lot of lobbying to do before disability research can get a descent, independent position in Finland, just like you say. It’s important to get all parties (also the political ones!) engaged to this goal. That might mean some popularization to make them interested but I think it could be well worth it.

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  4. Simo Vehmas

    Image problem – I suppose that’s one way to put it. And perhaps one way to deal with this could be joint public appearences of activists and researchers in seminars and media.

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