…for activist and Disability Studies scholar Colin Barnes

Posted on Thursday, November 3, 2011

Colin Barnes

On Nov. 10, Colin Barnes, a leading activist and scholar in Disability Studies at Leeds University in the UK, will deliver the second annual Rathlyn Lecture in Disability Studies. Barnes will address the development of disability studies as an internationally recognised academic discipline and raise important questions about its relevance beyond the academy and the quest for a meaningful and just society.

Disability Studies: Where next? Nov 10; 6-7:30 p.m.; Leacock room 232. For more information contact heather.mole@mcgill.ca

Q:  Do you feel that the discipline of Disability Studies is at a different stage in Britain than it is in Canada?

Until the 1990s, disability was considered an individual problem within the social sciences apart one or two short units on social policy courses. An important example was the ‘Handicapped Person in the Community’ on the Open University’s Health and Social Studies program that was abolished in 1993.

The first Disability Studies courses that adopted a broader socio/political approach in accordance with the ‘Social Model of Disability’ were developed in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds in 1992. There are now several courses across the UK.

It is difficult to say whether Disability Studies in Britain is at a different stage than it is in Canada as I’m not really familiar with everything that’s going on in Canada.

Certainly the ‘success’ of disability politics and disability studies in the UK over the last 20 years has resulted in a de-radicalization of the discipline, due to the growing interest in the subject by mainstream ‘academics.’

In many respects this is a reflection of the situation in the social sciences generally and economics in particular. This has led to a general re-focusing of attention on impairment related issues that in my view is a retrogressive step.

Why is it important for universities to include Disability Studies as a discipline on campus?

Disability studies is not really about illness whether chronic, acute or impairment, it is about societal responses to people defined for whatever reason as ‘disabled.’ Impairment whether physical, sensory or intellectual is a human constant. The overwhelming majority of impairments are due to social causes; poverty, violence and war, are three important examples. Whether we like to admit it or not we all acquire impairments of one form or another through the ageing process. The more technically and socially developed societies become, the more impairments and ‘disablement’ they create. This of course has important implications for all academic disciplines including the natural sciences. To arrest and reverse the problem of disablement we have to focus on the disabling aspects of the physical and cultural environments.

 In what ways would a Disability Studies department enhance the work of disabilities service providers, like McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities?

It would help focus practitioner attention in whatever field to look beyond the functional limitations of individuals defined as ‘disabled’ and the limitations of ‘cure’ or ‘care’ solutions, toward the cultural and environmental context in which they find themselves. There is now a wealth of evidence indicating that an individual’s health and well-being is significantly improved within a physically accessible and supportive social environment.

Though the trend in education is on ‘inclusion,’ this model is often currently under threat in several countries; tell us why it’s important to fight for this approach.

Inclusive education is crucially important in the struggle for a fairer and more equitable society. A segregated education system generates ignorance, fear and prejudice. It we are to eliminate the ignorance, fear and prejudice encountered by people defined as ‘disabled,’ or indeed defined as ‘different’ for whatever reason whether religion, gender, ethnicity or sexual preference, children and young people need to learn in an inclusive environment which accommodates all children whatever their abilities and background.


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Category: Four Burning Questions

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