How can we explain violence against disabled people?

30 Oct

ImageDan Goodley, Professor of Psychology and Disability Studies, University of Sheffield, School of Education, D.goodley@sheffield.ac.uk

It is perhaps not surprising to disability scholars though still sobering to learn, in the current climate of austerity and economic downturn, that disabled people are more likely to experience hate crime. A recent roundtable chaired by Tom Shakespeare of the World Health Organisation at the 2012 Disability Studies conference in Lancaster drew necessary attention to hate crimes in nations from Zimbabwe to England. One got a sense of a global epidemic of disablist hatred as contributors provided depressing and harrowing data on physical and psychological crimes. Conference delegates heard statistics on mental and sexual abuse, battery, vandalism of home and grievous bodily harm. These testimonies from colleagues such as Tsitsi Chataika and Alan Roulstone in the aforementioned nations importantly capture what is happening on the ground. Today. 2012. Actual acts of seemingly mindless violence. But how can we explain and understand this violence? What counts as violence against disabled people? And when we think of violence what do we have in mind? Whilst it is morally and politically necessary to recognise and challenge physical acts of violence – epitomised by hate crime – do other more subtle forms of violence exist that are as equally damaging to disabled people? Such questions might seem banal, trivial and typically academic. These questions appear to move away from the realities of hate-fuelled acts to the naval gazing realm of frothy theory often typified by those of a postmodern persuasion. Yet, on closer examination, one could conclude that these questions broaden the concept of violence and demand a more considered response.

In a recent paper that I have written with my colleague Katherine Runswick Cole[i] we posed and then tried to address these questions. We approached the task because of the stories shared with us by disabled children and their families in England. We too were told about physical acts of violence: those one might normally associated with hate crime. A girl having tampons forced in her mouth by her non-disabled peers on the school bus. A young man being attacked by a playground supervisor in his school. A teenage girl being forced to lick a toilet seat by a group of girls who were filming this ‘jape’ to upload on to You Tube later that day. Equally, sadly and unfortunately, we also heard accounts of violence that hinted at some of the wider endemic social and cultural factors that might be understood as lying behind the often more publicised accounts of what is being increasingly termed hate crime.

The cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, in his 2008 book Violence[ii], suggests that while it is important to document and address all forms of violence we should also be prepared to move back from the obvious signals of violence to ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts’. Žižek urges us to consider the ways in which the whole panoply of violent acts against (disabled) people can only be understood by reflecting on the wider circulating practices of dominant (disablist) culture.

His work encourages us to consider the normal, everyday, mundane, accepted workings of societal institutions and community practices as being inherently violent against those that, in some way or another, threaten their everyday workings and practices. Other forms of violence emerge. One of these is what is Žižek terms systemic violence; which he understands as the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. ‘We’re talking here’ he says, ‘of the violence inherent in a system: not only of direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination: including the threat of violence’ (Žižek, 2008: 1-8). This kind of violence was apparent in the lives of the disabled children and families that we spoke to who told us of disabled children being manhandled in Christmas performances by staff in order to behave and not disrupt the show. This violence is to be found when a child’s hand are pulled away from a canvas because their messy painting methods were at odds with the classroom task that had been set in tune with the requirements of a lesson in-keeping with the National Curriculum.  Similarly, we find the pressures of the system in the numerous parental stories of stress, tears and near breakdown explained by the endless need to fight the school system to recognize and include their children. These narratives of systemic violence might not be as hard hitting as the earlier accounts of physical and mental acts of abuse. They are often not as newsworthy. They are, however, as brutal and potentially damaging as any form of disablist violence because they say something profound about the wider disablist culture in which we live.

This is a culture that appears to give permission to a whole host of abusive acts against those individuals who threaten the safe running of normative, disabling, everyday ways of life. To tackle violence against disabled people we must stop all hate crimes, physical and mental acts against disabled people. Additionally, we must also keep deconstructing and reforming the very cultural norms that legitimize violence against disabled people in the first place. Theorising violence is not a project for apolitical social theorists: it is a project that seeks an adequate response to the endemic nature of violence against disabled people found mascarading in the belief that the status quo is working well and should remain intact. This is the social fact of violence that we must always keep in mind.


  1. Goodley, D. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2011). The violence of disablism, Sociology of Health and Illness, 33 (4), 602–617

ii.               Žižek, S. (2008). Violence. London: Profile books.

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How can we explain violence against disabled people?

30 Oct

Image

 

 

Dan Goodley, Professor of Psychology and Disability Studies, University of Sheffield, School of Education,  D.goodley@sheffield.ac.uk

It is perhaps not surprising to disability scholars though still sobering to learn, in the current climate of austerity and economic downturn, that disabled people are more likely to experience hate crime. A recent roundtable chaired by Tom Shakespeare of the World Health Organisation at the 2012 Disability Studies conference in Lancaster drew necessary attention to hate crimes in nations from Zimbabwe to England. One got a sense of a global epidemic of disablist hatred as contributors provided depressing and harrowing data on physical and psychological crimes. Conference delegates heard statistics on mental and sexual abuse, battery, vandalism of home and grievous bodily harm. These testimonies from colleagues such as Tsitsi Chataika and Alan Roulstone in the aforementioned nations importantly capture what is happening on the ground. Today. 2012. Actual acts of seemingly mindless violence. But how can we explain and understand this violence? What counts as violence against disabled people? And when we think of violence what do we have in mind? Whilst it is morally and politically necessary to recognise and challenge physical acts of violence – epitomised by hate crime – do other more subtle forms of violence exist that are as equally damaging to disabled people? Such questions might seem banal, trivial and typically academic. These questions appear to move away from the realities of hate-fuelled acts to the naval gazing realm of frothy theory often typified by those of a postmodern persuasion. Yet, on closer examination, one could conclude that these questions broaden the concept of violence and demand a more considered response.

In a recent paper that I have written with my colleague Katherine Runswick Cole[i] we posed and then tried to address these questions. We approached the task because of the stories shared with us by disabled children and their families in England. We too were told about physical acts of violence: those one might normally associated with hate crime. A girl having tampons forced in her mouth by her non-disabled peers on the school bus. A young man being attacked by a playground supervisor in his school. A teenage girl being forced to lick a toilet seat by a group of girls who were filming this ‘jape’ to upload on to You Tube later that day. Equally, sadly and unfortunately, we also heard accounts of violence that hinted at some of the wider endemic social and cultural factors that might be understood as lying behind the often more publicised accounts of what is being increasingly termed hate crime.

The cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, in his 2008 book Violence[ii], suggests that while it is important to document and address all forms of violence we should also be prepared to move back from the obvious signals of violence to ‘perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts’. Žižek urges us to consider the ways in which the whole panoply of violent acts against (disabled) people can only be understood by reflecting on the wider circulating practices of dominant (disablist) culture.

His work encourages us to consider the normal, everyday, mundane, accepted workings of societal institutions and community practices as being inherently violent against those that, in some way or another, threaten their everyday workings and practices. Other forms of violence emerge. One of these is what is Žižek terms systemic violence; which he understands as the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. ‘We’re talking here’ he says, ‘of the violence inherent in a system: not only of direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination: including the threat of violence’ (Žižek, 2008: 1-8). This kind of violence was apparent in the lives of the disabled children and families that we spoke to who told us of disabled children being manhandled in Christmas performances by staff in order to behave and not disrupt the show. This violence is to be found when a child’s hand are pulled away from a canvas because their messy painting methods were at odds with the classroom task that had been set in tune with the requirements of a lesson in-keeping with the National Curriculum.  Similarly, we find the pressures of the system in the numerous parental stories of stress, tears and near breakdown explained by the endless need to fight the school system to recognize and include their children. These narratives of systemic violence might not be as hard hitting as the earlier accounts of physical and mental acts of abuse. They are often not as newsworthy. They are, however, as brutal and potentially damaging as any form of disablist violence because they say something profound about the wider disablist culture in which we live.

This is a culture that appears to give permission to a whole host of abusive acts against those individuals who threaten the safe running of normative, disabling, everyday ways of life. To tackle violence against disabled people we must stop all hate crimes, physical and mental acts against disabled people. Additionally, we must also keep deconstructing and reforming the very cultural norms that legitimize violence against disabled people in the first place. Theorising violence is not a project for apolitical social theorists: it is a project that seeks an adequate response to the endemic nature of violence against disabled people found mascarading in the belief that the status quo is working well and should remain intact. This is the social fact of violence that we must always keep in mind.


  1. Goodley, D. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2011). The violence of disablism, Sociology of Health and Illness, 33 (4), 602–617

ii.               Žižek, S. (2008). Violence. London: Profile books.

Ableism and Ability Studies

23 Feb

Gregor Wolbring, Associate professor,  Dept. of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary

As I see it, the theoretical framework and analytical lens of Ableism is a gift from the disabled people rights movement and disability studies to the social sciences and humanities.

I self-identify as a disability studies scholar, a science and technology studies scholar and an ability-cultural researcher (cultural research on ability preferences exhibited by individuals and societies). Ability expectations and preferences are one dynamic through which members of a group judge others and themselves and their lives. Ability preferences and judgments are at the root of many rules of behaviours and customs. Every disability studies scholar is in my eyes also an ability-cultural researcher.

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and is of course central to disability studies scholars. The term ableism was coined to be similar to sexism and racism, where a group could question certain negative behaviours towards themselves. Ableism used in this way allows for highlighting the disablement and disablism (Miller, Parker, & Gillinson, 2004) disabled people experience because their abilities do not fit the cultural preference for species-typical normative ability functioning and who therefore are labelled as ‘impaired’, as not able enough, as not able in the right way.

Ableism, however, is not limited to the species-typical/sub species-typical dichotomy. With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come we see an ableism becoming visible that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities. Furthermore ableism is not limited to body linked ability discourses.

Every person cherishes certain abilities and finds others non-essential. Some people cherish the ability to buy a car, some the ability to mountain climb, some the ability to perform academic work and others manual work. Some social structures are structured around GDPism (the ability to produce a GDP), efficiency, productivity and consumerism (the ability to consume), others could be organized around equity and empathy or any set of abilities. The list of abilities one can cherish is endless with new and different abilities added to this or that list all the time. The cherishing of abilities happens on the level of individuals as well as the level of households, communities, groups, sectors, regions, countries and cultures. There is a frequent trade-off between numerous abilities.

Ableism as such does not have to be negative – it just highlights that one favours certain abilities and sees them as essential. A culture may choose to cherish the ability to maintain equity for one’s members and members of a society could see this as positive. As a society one could decide that the ability to act as an individual without concern for the fate of others is a positive or a negative. What abilities are seen as essential and positive or which abilities or lack thereof are seen as negative are negotiated. In some ways disabled people and disability studies scholars negotiate with the world to see that the form of ableism that expects species-typical functioning with its accompanying disablism is negative.

Ableism in its general form leads to an ability based and ability justified understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment (Wolbring, 2011). We see increasingly ableism that plays itself out between generations of the young and elderly. We see a break between the young and the old where the elderly experience ageism (negative perception and/or treatment and lack of support of the elderly) due to a decrease of abilities of their youth and at the same time the perception that the remaining abilities the elderly hold have no particular use for the young or even society at large. And we see youthism where even the elderly try to regain the abilities of youth in order to escape ageism. Ableism influences how humans judge and relate to each others. What abilities one favours and what ableisms one exhibits is a dynamic that also defines human-nature relationship (anthropocentrism versus biocentrism), which in turn has an impact on which strategies and priorities are envisioned and employed for gaining water, energy climate and disaster security and avoiding insecurity, (an example is the recent legal developments in Ecuador and Bolivia that give rights to nature).

Given the above the concepts of ‘Ability inequity’, inequality, equity and equality, ability security and self-identity security (Wolbring, 2010) have enormous analytical currency for all kind of discourses. I coined a couple of years ago the term Ability Studies (Wolbring, 2008) which I defined, among others, to investigate: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which may lead to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms. I believe it to be an essential area of inquiry made possible through the initial development of the ableism term by the disabled people rights movement and the disability studies field. It’s up to the ‘others’ to see its value.

Note

A slightly different version of this blog entry was published before on the blog of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social SciencesVP Equity Issues series on diversity, creativity and innovation http://blog.fedcan.ca/2011/06/17/ableism-disability-studies-and-the-academy/

Reference List 

Miller, P., Parker, S., & Gillinson, S. (2004). Disablism How to tackle the last prejudice DEMOS.Retrieved February 10, 2012 from http://www.demos.co.uk/files/disablism.pdf

Wolbring, G. (2008). Why NBIC?  Why Human Performance Enhancement? Innovation; The European Journal of Social Science Research, 21(1), 25-40.

Wolbring, G. (2010). Ableism and Favoritism for Abilities Governance, Ethics and Studies: New Tools for Nanoscale and Nanoscale enabled Science and Technology Governance. In Susan Cozzens & Jameson M.Wetmore (Eds.), The Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society, vol. II: The Challenges of Equity and Equality. New York: Springer.

Wolbring, G. (2011). Ableism and energy security and insecurity. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 5(1), Article 3. Retrieved from http://www.bepress.com/selt/vol5/iss1/art3/

 

What Are Words, Actions, and Attitudes?

7 Dec

Kristín Björnsdóttir, Assistant Professor, University of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland

A few weeks ago, I stood in front of a large group of undergraduate students at the University of Iceland. ‘My brother is a retard,’ I said. The students stopped browsing the Internet, updating their Facebook status, all the chattering stopped, and the big lecture hall became very quiet. ‘Yes, my brother is retarded,’ I repeated. One young man smiled and asked: ‘Why? What did he do?’ The students laughed and I smiled back and said: ‘He did not do anything. That’s his diagnosis’. My students did not realize that I was not using the term ‘retardation’ as slang to describe my brother’s (negative) behavior. I explained to the students that it was written in his medical records that he was retarded. We talked about how labels, such as ‘mental retardation’ emphasize people’s limitations and what they lack in terms of abilities and competencies. Eventually the labels are used to describe any type of human and social limitations and often we forget where these words come from.  

The students all agreed that the label ‘mental retardation’ is outdated and they would prefer to use the term ‘intellectual disabilities’ to describe people who have cognitive impairments because it is more positive and not commonly used as slang. Does that mean that we are free to use older terms such as ‘retardation’ in a derogatory manner? Many of my students claimed that they meant no harm by using disability labels as slang in everyday use. One student said: ‘I use these words sometimes, but that does not mean that I have something against disabled people. Not at all.’ Another student agreed and said with hesitation: ‘It is not like I would ever say this to a disabled person. I would not want to hurt anyone’s feelings’. And yet another student said: ‘It does not matter what we say, it is what we do’. I have been thinking about my dialog with these students and wondered if they are right. Do actions speak louder than words?

I guess disabled people should be able to lead pretty good lives in Iceland since we have socialized health care and education for all citizens. Also, disabled people had the legal right, to participate in society and to receive support to lead a ‘normal’ life since 1979. Disability policies and legislation also emphasized equality and greater social participation of disabled people for the past 30 years. Sounds good? Looks good? Well, it does on paper. The reality is that there is a big gap between the legal right for participation and disabled people’s experiences in reality. There is a big gap between what we say we are going to do and what is being done. Why is it that we do not do what we are supposed to?

A new study conducted by the University of Iceland showed that only 50% of primary and lower secondary school teachers in Iceland find it important that students with special needs receive their education in the compulsory schools in their neighborhoods as the vast majority of other children do. By law students with special needs have the right to special study support. However, research has shown that students with intellectual disabilities often do not get the study and social support they need, which sometimes results in transfer to segregated special schools far away from their neighborhood, friends, and siblings. At the teachers’ lounge at the university I often listen to my colleagues debate whether the emphasis in teacher’s training should be on theory or practice and if we should teach our student teachers ‘appropriate’ attitudes.

I don’t have the answer. But what I do know is that words and how we use them matter. Words can be hurtful and what we say reflects the meaning we attach to disabilities and disabled people. The words we use often mirror our attitudes and our actions are a reflection of our attitudes. Is it possible that the educational needs of students with disabilities are not being met in inclusive settings because half of the teachers do not think it is important for them to be at their neighborhood schools? Is there a possibility that there is a gap between rights and experiences because of how society perceives disabled people? Tom Shakespeare, in his blog on this page a couple of weeks ago (When realism is critical), called for empirical research on everyday situations of disabled people. I agree with Tom, but I am also going to risk sounding unoriginal by stating the obvious: It is not enough to conduct empirical research we need to put it to use. We have reached a point where researchers need to find a better and more effective way to put their research findings to use in order to counter society’s negative and belittling attitudes. Researchers need to ask themselves how they are going to use these empirical findings for disabled people to ‘experience better, fuller, more included lives’.  

A friend of mine, a young man with intellectual disabilities told me once: ‘You know what Kristín? It does not matter if we have legislation that allows us to go places, if we have transport services to drive us places, if we have support staff to take us places, all of this does not matter if the people do not want us there’.