Tom Shakespeare, ed. Disability Research Today: International Perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge Press Ltd., 2015. 270 pp. $51.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-415-74844-5.
Reviewed by Natalie Spagnuolo (York University, Toronto)
Published on H-Disability (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Disability Research Today: International Perspectives offers a cross-section of research from different geographic locations by authors who, quite self-consciously, employ empirical approaches to the study of impairment-related experiences. Editor Tom Shakespeare, renowned disability author and activist, introduces the volume as an explicit attempt to “[place] disability studies on a stronger empirical footing” (p. 5), confronting what he calls “slogans, assertions or anecdotes” (p. 2). Shakespeare describes a prevailing tendency in disability studies to favor theoretical works, and his hope is to compensate for the apparent lack of rigorous and useful research that he has detected in the field, and which he appears to link to social modelist and critical disability approaches. Individual contributors also address the pitfalls of various theoretical and methodological orientations and, in doing so, engage in long-standing debates around the nature of disability and disability oppression (see especially Ferrie and Watson, p. 45; Hanisch, pp. 99-102). Throughout the collection, most authors advance what is referred to as a critical realist approach and, to varying extents, make use of Shakespeare’s own work on the subject, drawing upon his 2006 monograph Disability Rights and Wrongs (for example, see Dikmen Bezmez and Sibel Yardımcı, p. 10; Jo Ferries and Nick Watson, p. 57; Halvor Hanisch, p. 104; Stephen Macdonald, p. 121; James Rice, Eirikur Smith, and Kristin Björnsdóttir,, p. 137; Lucy Series, p. 150; Fabio Ferrucci and Michela Cortini, p. 187).
Shakespeare acknowledges at the outset that the collection reflects many of his own biases as well as his “preferences for what disability studies should be” (p. 2). His foremost concern is with applicability: how to operationalize and apply research findings towards the development of policies and practices that will benefit people with disabilities. So, while the volume includes a broad variety of studies grounded in different disciplinary backgrounds--covering important topics such as violence against women with disabilities, support services in postsecondary education, and representations of people with intellectual disabilities in fiction--individual contributors share a common interest in proposing blueprints for direct action that can follow from their findings. The collection is organized in three sections and fourteen chapters and moves from the immediate reality of the body to critiques of disabling barriers and existing systems of support and/or control to representational issues.
The first section, “Illness and Impairment,” features two chapters that document approaches to rehabilitation that are not often reflected in Eurocentric practices. Bezmez and Yardimici’s chapter centers the role of the family in the Turkish hospital system and draws out the implications of these reciprocal interactions by showing how families and patients negotiate perceptions of disability. Taking up the call for reciprocal understandings of disability, Kohji Ishihara’s discussion of tojisha kenkyu in chapter 2 compares collaborative approaches to knowledge formation with claims to self-knowledge. Ishihara argues that the former is undertaken by psychiatric user groups in Japan, who sometimes work through psychiatric lenses, while more individualistic approaches are reflected in antipsychiatry peer support groups that are popular in survivor movements. Next, Ferrie and Watson’s contribution underscores an important assumption that connects the preceding chapters: the negative reality of impairments and illnesses for some disabled people. Addressing impairment effects, they explore the impact of these negative corporeal experiences and demonstrate that their emotional consequences exist apart from disabling barriers. The authors determine that for several of the participants they interviewed, “the body was more significant than social barriers” (p. 49).
The next section, “Disabling Processes,” shifts the focus to service provision, and in particular, the ineffectiveness of services based on knowledge that fail to account for lived reality. For example, Macdonald’s chapter reveals that because homeless services in the United Kingdom are not geared towards people with dyslexia, people who are overrepresented within this category, this leads to “missed opportunities for support ” (p. 129); in chapter 4, Fabio Corbisiero reflects a similar concern with missed opportunities when he describes ways to enhance the efficiency of job placement strategies for people with disabilities in Italy. Nandini Ghosh’s chapter on violence against disabled women in India highlights the high rate of violence experienced by women confined in institutions who encounter rape and forced sterilization among other forms of sexual and physical violation. Ghosh’s study is closely grounded in the insight that these acts of violence function to sustain male and nondisabled hegemony; her findings complement Hanisch’s discussion of theoretical approaches to violence in chapter 6, where he repositions the “disproportionate violence against disabled people” as a core structure, rather than outcome, of disablism (p. 105).
The third section, “Care and Control,” complements Hanisch’s interest in knowledge and violence with a chapter by Rice, Smith, and Björnsdóttir that explores how people with physical disabilities are rendered “invisible” in Iceland. The authors reveal through interviews that there is widespread social indifference to the absent, inadequate, and harmful support that people with disabilities receive. The subsequent chapter by Series, which includes a critique of capacity standards that affect people with intellectual disabilities in England and Wales, probes the issue of care or support even further by showing how capacity assessments can lead to sexual regulation. Series reveals that while one stated function of capacity assessments is to protect individuals who are deemed vulnerable from sexual exploitation, these practices can lead to the subjective denial of their right to self-determination. In chapter 10, Iva Strnadová addresses self-determination more directly by discussing empowerment and disempowerment in care relations involving people with intellectual disabilities in the Czech Republic and Australia. Framing empowerment as a process that requires cultivation to avoid “creating dependence and ‘learned helplessness,’” Strnadová’s chapter closely reflects Series’s concern that supposed attempts to provide care can often result in harm (p. 177).
In the final section, “Communication and Representation,” authors Ferrucci and Cortini consider how accessibility services in Italian universities do not necessarily support the inclusion of students with disabilities, who often remain limited in their choices of schools. Following this, Jan Grue looks at the notion of the supercrip and traces how such misrepresentations of disability are sometimes reflected in arguments articulated through disability movements themselves. The issue of self-representation is also considered in Hauland’s chapter on Deaf individuals who use videophones. Hilda Haualand compares how service users in the United States, Sweden, and Norway understand this technology, and she considers how this relates to broader systems of inclusion, as well as to the role of Deaf people in shaping services. In the final chapter of the collection, Howard Sklar challenges the epistemic authority of fiction writers by showing how literary representations of people with intellectual disabilities tend to rely on harmful tropes that carry a reductionist quality, thus reinforcing the social devaluation of people with intellectual disabilities.
Sklar’s study, as with many of the chapters described above, features marginalized categories and experiences of embodiment such as intellectual disabilities and chronic illnesses, and certainly goes a long way in countering the privileging of experiences of “stable” and “static” physical impairments. In this sense, Disability Studies Today contributes to much-needed and widely demanded changes in the field. The collection, however, also claims to represent international perspectives, (as emphasized by the volume’s subtitle). While the book is international in orientation, the authorship as well as the content seem to reflect some problematic global power dynamics. Noticeably, most chapters are located in countries that are commonly viewed as being part of the Global North (such as Iceland, Italy, and the Czech Republic), with the notable exception of Ghosh’s study of Indian women’s experiences of violence. Along those lines, it would have been interesting to include some discussion of interactions taking place between countries, and in particular, an account of the colonial relations which sustain some of the data sources employed throughout the volume--especially those derived from international systems such as the World Health Organization.
The collection’s claim to be, for the most part, grounded in empirical methodologies would be an interesting subject for debate. The information collected through the first-person interviews that are presented in various chapters is undoubtedly valuable, but readers may struggle to distinguish how a critical realist analysis sets these studies apart from the implied, and sometimes stated, contrast with other methods of study. Critical realist methods seem important to several of the authors’ accounts, but there is little discussion about what this approach entails beyond a consideration of practical issues. While the collection as a whole may be in pursuit of realism and rigor, this may not always be “objectively” clear to readers, and any evaluative claims to this effect will certainly invite disagreement, especially among those who favor social modelist and critical theoretical directions. As such, Disability Research Today is sure to spark strong interest among scholars hoping to pursue critical realism, while the interdisciplinarity and breadth of scholarship can be expected to appeal to variety of research interests and, even more importantly, to related disability struggles.
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Natalie Spagnuolo. Review of Shakespeare, Tom, ed., Disability Research Today: International Perspectives.
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