Professor Dan Goodley and ‘Dis/ability Studies’

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Today, we interview Professor Dan Goodley. Dan is a professor of Psychology and Disability at Sheffield. He’s also a prolific writer and his new book  ‘Dis/ability Studies: Theorising disablism and ableism was released yesterday. He very kindly walks me thought the book in a nutshell in this deeply illuminating interview. If the book is more of the same then I’m certainly going to look forward to reading it.


Me: So Dis/ability Studies is by no means your first book, indeed you’ve been writing on disability for almost 15 years – has it been a project you’ve always wanted to do or is it a natural follow up to your earlier work?

Thanks for the question and the opportunity to respond. The new book ‘Dis/ability Studies’ (2014, Routledge) has emerged our of nearly 20 years research and writing in disability studies, through collaboration with others (in particular Rebecca Lawthom and Katherine Runswick Cole at Manchester Metropolitan University) and through dialogues and chats with disabled activists and academic colleagues in Canada (Tanya Titchkosky and Rod Michalko), Australia (Fiona Kumari Campbell, Leanne Dowse and Karen Soldatic), Iceland (Rannveig Traustadottir) Finland (Simo Vehmas), Malaysia (How Kee Ling) and the States (Robert McRuer) to name but a few. So, it is important to say that while the book is ‘single authored’ (as academia likes to term it) it really is, like any piece of work, the result of collaboration. Many people have left their mark on the text.

In addition, my ongoing involvement with self-advocacy of people with the label of learning disabilities continues to influence my thinking about disability theory and politics. And I’ll explain why below. ‘Dis/ability Studies’ attempts, in a nutshell, to bring together analyses (and challenges to) the dual process of  disablism (the social, political, cultural and psycho-emotional exclusion of people with physical, sensory and/or cognitive impairments) and ableism (the contemporary ideals on which the able, autonomous, productive citizen is based). I seek to shake up ableism whilst also contesting disablism. I am also interested in the meaning making of either side of the disability-ability binary and the messy stuff in the middle. Dis/ability is also a moment of contemplation. It permits us to ask: what kinds of human being do we value and reject? Why are we so entranced by abilities such as individual achievement, bodily perfection and solitary independence? Why is disability more prominent now than it has ever been? What will humanity look like in 20 years when more and more people are being labelled as disabled?  How might it be helpful to think through the ways in which disability and ability are co-constituted? How can activists, researchers, allies and practitioners associated with what we might loosely define as the disability field address the contemporary concerns facing disabled and non-disabled people in a time of austerity? To what extent does an analysis of disability immediately require one to scrutinize ability?

The book seeks, then, to remain focused on the construction of disability/abnormality/lack whilst also, at the same time, unpacking ability/normality/capacity. A recurring story of the text is around what I term the dis/ability complex. This is a split term that I believe acknowledges the ways in which disability and ableism (and disability and ability) can only ever be understood simultaneously in relation to one another. The slashed and split term denotes the complex ways in which opposites bleed into one another. People find it difficult to define ‘normal’ and ‘ability’ but are far more ready to have a go at categorising ‘abnormal’ and ‘disability’. Dis/ability studies keep disablism and ableism, disability and ability in play with one another, to explore their co-construction and reliance upon one another.

Let me give you an example – returning to my continued collaboration with self-advocacy – and one of the preferred labels of this political movement: People First. What I think is interesting about this label is that it calls into play ability (we are people like anyone else) whilst at the same time getting people with the label of learning disabilities to collectively come together to share their political and personal ambitions (so constituting a form of disability politics). One might suggest then that self-advocacy groups work around and through dis/ability. Another example relates to education. We have a strange contradiction within our schools today. On one hand, we are seeing the narrowing of curricula, the rise of more and more performative tests of schools and pupils (in terms of league tables and SAT scores) and the government backing of ‘free school’s in the name of enhancing educational quality. All sounds like an entrancement with ability, don’t you think? Then, on the other hand, we have seen an exponential rise in the numbers of disability labels. The stickiness of labels applied to children, across the globe, has grown like wild fire over the last decade across the globe. For example, last year’s publication of the DSM 5, by the American Psychiatric Association, heralds a smorgasboard of new labels. An article in last year’s Guardian Newspaper by Doward (2013) provides an accessible overview of debates raging around the relative merits of this rewritten diagnostic manual. New diagnoses include:

  • Disruptive mood deregulation disorder (DMMD), for those diagnosed with abnormally severe and frequent temper tantrums;
  • Binge-eating disorder. For those who eat to excess 12 times in three months.
  • Hoarding disorder, defined as ‘persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of actual value’
  • Oppositional defiance disorder, described by one critic as a condition afflicting children who say ‘no’ to their parents more than a certain number of times (Doward, 2013: 10).

Are we dividing up sections of the human population in an ever-more disability-obsessed focus on labeling the peccadillos of human beings? We are fascinated by disability. The book, therefore, seeks to trace and understand this societal and cultural interest in disability and ability.

Me: In the book you argue that ‘dis/ability studies’ is a new perspective on the research area – to ask quite a general question, do you think the current state of disability-related research is focused on identifying issues that may affect people in the future, or do you think the area as a whole has not yet caught up with the wider range of cultural changes taking place over even the last seven or eight years?

Dan: Another great question: thank you. There is no doubt that disability studies research has tracked and attacked the development of disablist work practices, a lack of human rights legislation, exclusionary forms of education, patronizing images and disabling charity messages to name but a few examples of social and cultural life.  Another way of responding to your question would be to say that disability studies scholarship and activism has fundamentally re-shaped culture, especially over the last 30 years. There would be no DDA without disabled people and their politics. Personalisation, independent living funds and empowering forms of social care exist because disabled people lobbied for these things. At the same time, the disability community continues to come up with imaginative ways of living lives; this includes (i) disabled activists emphasizing interdependence instead of endlessly desiring independence; (ii) families of disabled children demonstrating the importance of collective support in enhancing the lives of their children rather than dwelling on individualised autonomy and (iii) the political work of disability organisations such as People First – the international activist movement of people associated with the label of intellectual disabilities – has demonstrated that competence is a distributed phenomenon rather than an individualised trait. Disability, then, emerges as a moment of human reflection: urging us to think again about how we are all made through our connections with others and encouraging us to embrace ways of living that are not rigidly framed by humanistic values of independence and autonomy.

Developing your question further one might ask the following: has disability studies caught up with profound cultural changes associated with ableism’s cultural fascination with being super-human, uber-able and hyper-normal. My answer would be yes but not enough. My sense is that there has to be a sustained analysis of ability and ableism alongside the study of disablism. Indeed, in ‘Dis/ability Studies’, I acknowledge writers such as Fiona Kumari Campbell and Gregor Wolbring who have really pushed the emerging area of Critical Abliest Studies. This work builds upon the work of other disability scholars who have wanted to challenge the able-bodied (Susan Wendell), the figure of normalcy (Lennard Davis) and the normate (Rosemarie Garland Thomson). All of this work has switched attention on to the wider processes associated with ableism; a set of values and social practices that maintain and up hold those ideals associated with being autonomous, responsible, able-bodied and minded, economically productive, ready to spend, psychologically and physically perfect, still able to spend, independent and never in need of the help of others (unless we choose to pay for it). The sad truth, however, is that many of us feel lacking when we face these ideals. Who doesn’t have a bad hair day? All of us I would suggest. Apart from David Beckham. Other than Becks’, we all find ourselves lacking in the realm of the able. But this does not end with concerns about hair and appearance. It also evokes what Alain de Botton termed ‘status anxiety’. Are we earning enough? Are our holidays exotic enough? How sexy are our Facebook updates? Are our selfies pretty enough? In our ableist society we endlessly feel the pull for improvement and the draw of human enhancement. More and more people use Botox, fillers, correct selfie camera angles, more severe forms of plastic surgery and ever more severe selfie camera angles. The growing transhumanist movement – a real movement galvanised around the idea that the present human condition just aint good enough – seek to blend human/machine – wetware and hardware – in their pursuance of perfection. Organisations such as humanity + ( bring activists, researchers, funders, designers, technologists together to reboot humanity.  And on a more mundane level energy drinks, legal highs and the use of prescription uppers including Ritalin are flooding the youth and student marketplace in order to improve a good night out or, increasingly, enhance one’s performance under exam conditions. Hence while many disabled people with learning disabilities desire to be recognised as human beings (for example People First), many human beings, it would appear, display discontent with being normal and human (and want more). Technologies, robotics, Google’s knowledge of everything we post on line and virtual environments will only ever increase in terms of their sophistication. And as they merge with the biological, so called ‘natural’ make up of what we used to call ‘humanity’ one is left asking: are we human anymore? When we plug our bodies into technology – or plug technology into our bodies – what have we done to this quaint notion of ‘the human being’? And, heartbreakingly, how ironic then that we deny some people (such as disabled people) access to these human heartlands when, at the same time, there is so much work going on attempting to radically overhaul the natural terrain of the human.

My ardent hope is that this fledgling dis/ability studies not only feeds the faculties of critical studies of ableism and disablism but constitutes a commons upon which other radical theories and forms of activism share ideas and practices that broaden our understandings of the human and society.

Me: I’m just back from a very international meeting of disability bloggers and it was fascinating to see how differently (often worse) disability is treated internationally.  Do you think that the UK is setting a high standard in terms of disability policy or are the innovations you’d like to bring in from other countries?

I think that the UK can be proud of many achievements: many (if not all) linked to the lobbying, campaigning and pressure of disabled people’s representative organisations. I know, too, that many people outside of the UK would consider British policy, theory and practice as advanced, well-developed and cutting edge. Indeed, I am lucky enough to have discussed disability policy with colleagues from Nepal, Malaysia, Japan, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other contexts. Many colleagues are impressed, for example, with some of the achievements made here in the UK around inclusive education. I too would share some pride in relation to inclusive education.

At the same time, however, there is no doubt that local, culturally centred and historically located responses to disability often provide the correct practices. I worry when I witness ideas developed in the UK that are uprooted and transplanted into other international contexts without any critical reflection or appraisal. I really welcome, for example, development such as the Open Access journal Disability and the Global South ( led by Shaun Grech and colleagues which seeks to address the complexity within your question about the global/local nature of disability.

The UK can be proud of a number of achievements but this brings me back to the problems of ableism: how can we promote inclusive education in schools that are increasingly obsessed with narrowly conceived notions of academic achievement on the part of individual learners? This, again, is an example of the paradox of dis/ability culture.

Me: So reading the pre-release reviews of your book, they are all very glowing, but contained a range of words that I, as a professional academic researcher had to look up (plus they can’t agree on if/how neoliberalism is hyphenated) – would you say you are writing primarily for seasoned researchers in the area, or is this a much more accessible, almost pop-science, book?

Ha! Well I think your question here asks me to respond to two considerations: (i) the accessible nature of academic writing (or lack of it) and (ii) the place of theory and theorising in analyses of disablism (and ableism). Addressing the first consideration, I recognise that many of academic words, concepts and theoretical ideas might at times be a mouthful. In defence, in ‘Dis/ability Studies’, I seek to define any (new) concepts as I go along, so hope this addresses the practical question around accessibility. There is a related consideration of course which links to the potentially exclusionary nature of academic language. I think this tension will always exist but my sense is that new language and new vocabularies are hard to take on at first. However, if they have any utility then they will stick around. The word ‘ideology’ is an example of a concept that is rather tricky when one tries to define it but has become something that we intrinsically understand, I would argue. Responding to the second consideration my response is unapologetically pro-theory. Indeed, I would turn to the words of a friend and colleagues Bill Hughes, who in the final chapter of our edited book (with Lenny Davis) Disability and Social Theory says the following:

Why theory? It is a question the Greeks would probably not have asked. Theoria for our classical cousins was about ‘contemplation’, reflecting on observation and experience, in other words, ways of making sense of the world, reaching out through reason to the juicy fruit of truth. It was built in to what they did and how they approached the world. A gymnasium was both a place for getting naked and for philosophical speculation a combination of the intellectual and the physical, incongruous in the modern academy where thinking is wrapped in robes and gowns. Nietzsche, in marked contrast to his fellow philosophers down the ages taught that, while our ideas did not serve the untouchable tribunal of truth, theory was a psychological necessity, an outcome of the need for human actors to impose intellectual order on a chaotic world … The view we have taken is that any intellectual system or social theory is fair game when it comes to building a case for emancipation or for sharpening the tools that are of value in opposing, discrimination, exclusion and oppression.

When theory sharpens our tools that we use to oppose the dual processes of ableism and disablism then I think we might be on to something. On the question of why we write ‘neoliberalism’, well, I’ll leave that to you!

Dis/ability Studies: Theorising disablism and ableism is available from Amazon right now! 🙂


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