Emancipatory Disability Research (or: Why it matters that the ‘academy’ isn’t more accessible for disabled people)

Last week a commenter on this blog asked the following question:

“Could you also explain, though, why does your research HAVE to be done by a disabled person…?”

There was a slight misinterpretation here of what I’d said earlier. I am keen that this piece of research into the church and disability should be done by a disabled person. It doesn’t have to be. But I do hope it will be. (Of course, I also hope that researcher will be me, for obvious reasons. But that’s a separate issue!)

The question of why is something of a difficult issue. There’s no denying that when this question comes up, it often gets personal. Why, says the highly competent non-disabled person, does it matter who researches disability? As long the research is conducted and voices are heard, what’s the problem? And threatened researchers close those big inaccessible doors to the academy again.

The academy is not listening to the full story of emancipatory research. This research approach does not mean that all researchers must be disabled. Neither does it mean that disabled people with no research training want to throw all the professional researchers out of all the sociology departments in the land and take over (and I can’t imagine why they would – I’m sure they have far better things to do with their time).

What it does mean is engagement, and awareness of standpoint and privilege. The emancipatory research paradigm owes much to feminist empiricist and standpoint research, and their challenging of malestream epistemology, in this sense. As Harding says about the way research into gender has traditionally been undertaken:

“The problem here is not only that the hypotheses which would most deeply challenge androcentric beliefs are missing from those alternatives sexists consider when testing their favored hypotheses. It is also that traditional empiricism does not direct researchers to locate themselves in the same plane as their subject matters. Consequently, when nonfeminist researchers gather evidence for or against hypotheses, ‘scientific method’ – bereft of such a directive – is impotent to locate and eradicate the androcentrism that shapes such a process” (Harding, 1986:167, my emphasis).

Similarly, Skeggs makes the point that standpoint theory asserts that “the experience of oppression engenders particular knowledges” (Skeggs, 1997:26, emphasis in original), and that the role of researchers using this approach is to engage in and communicate experience, while being constantly aware of the subjectivity of both researcher and participants.

In the same way, there is a deeply normative, disablist epistemology at the centre of a large proportion of social research into disability, as many researchers from the field of disability studies have argued (Oliver, 1992; Rioux and Bach, 1994; Zarb, 1997; Barnes, 2001). The problem is that this normative epistemology continues to go unheeded, and the normative ideology that emerges from it is continually reproduced. To rephrase Harding, the disablist structures and ideologies that shape the research process, and therefore the results of research, are ignored.

What’s different about the emancipatory research paradigm, then? Several things. Like feminist standpoint theory and research, it centres the experience of research participants (also owing a debt to participatory action research here). It acknowledges that the ‘objective expert’ position taken by the researcher is a major problem, and conversely asserts that there is no objective position in research. Following this, it is clear about its epistemological basis: the social model of disability. And most importantly, it attempts to give back the control of the research agenda to disabled people (Priestley and Stone, 1996).

The last of these, in particular, I’m keen to explore. Some erroneous assumptions have been made while trying to achieve the full control of disabled people over research agendas. These assumptions (and this is purely my interpretation) have included: all disabled people are organized, all disabled people are politicized, all disabled people are aware of the disabling structures that exist within society, and all disabled people can be easily reached through your local user-led organization, so you can just turn up at their door and disabled people will instantly be in control in of your research agenda. Um. Not quite. Especially when the disabled community, that could once have been called a movement, is currently extremely fragemented.

I’m interested in finding creative and accessible ways to put disabled people in control of research that affects them, in a way that reaches the disabled ‘community’ as it is today. I don’t think that’s going to be easy. I don’t think it automatically happens just because I’m disabled. And it may not even be possible – as the great Mike Oliver eventually concluded (1997). But I believe it is absolutely essential to attempt it.

Why? Because we haven’t even begun to eradicate disability discrimination from society. And not only that, but disabled people – and the disabling structures we face every day – remain invisible in society. I’m currently taking a sociology course on inequality and diversity that acknowledges every group covered by equality legislation except disabled people. Many people, speaking from positions of privilege, will tell you that “everyone’s a bit disabled” (see Abberley, 1991, and many other theorists for the major flaws in this argument), and isn’t every school/office/church/mosque/shop accessible already (*ahem*), and they get free cars, don’t they (nope), and we’re very disability-aware you know (but we’re not employing that applicant with mental health problems in case she’s off on paid sick leave all the time)… Research could, and does, have an impact on some of this problem of disablism, discrimination and invisibility – if it truly communicates the experiences of disabled people.

In common with standpoint feminism, emancipatory disability research begins with an understanding that, until very recently, theories about and approaches to disability were developed entirely without the input of disabled people. For centuries disabled people were the objects of research, rather than its subjects (to borrow from Skeggs). Women, people from minority ethnic groups, non-heterosexual people, and other oppressed groups have been similarly objectified in the pursuit of sociological knowledge. The difference is that today, research about, for example, black people, controlled entirely by white researchers without the input of the people being studied would meet with strong condemnation. Yet this is still not the case for disabled people. We remain objectified, in research and in society.

Which is why I believe that, at the moment at least, a lot more of this research should be done by disabled researchers than is currently the case. I don’t mean all of it. There are some non-disabled researchers who are very aware of privilege. There are others, some of whom I know personally, who are researching issues relating to disability where they, too, are objectified. But for the most part, with society still privileging non-disability and normative viewpoints, I believe that disabled people are the most aware of non-disabled privilege. I don’t think this will always be the case – at least, I hope not. And I don’t expect all disability researchers to be disabled. But I think more should be. We would frown upon a Race Studies department full of white researchers. We wouldn’t be too sure about a Gender Studies department consisting of only heterosexual men. Why are we happy that the majority of research into disability is still being conducted by non-disabled people?

Am I wrong about this? I’m aware that it’s a VERY controversial viewpoint. Do you, like Barnes and Oliver (1997), think there should be more disabled researchers in the academy? Or is disability different from race, gender etc. in this respect? Thoughts welcome.


P. Abberley, 1991, ‘Disabled People: Three Theories of Abnormality’
C. Barnes, 2001, ‘Emancipatory Disability Research: Project or Process?’
Barnes and Oliver, 1997, ‘All We Are Saying is Give Disabled Researchers a Chance’
S. Harding, 1986, ‘Feminism and Methodology’, in ‘Feminisms’, 1997, ed. Kemp and Squires, pp.160-70
M. Oliver, 1992, ‘Changing the Social Relations of Research Production?’
M. Oliver, 1997, ‘Emancipatory Research: Realistic Goal or Impossible Dream?’
Priestley and Stone, 1996, ‘Parasites, Pawns and Partners: Disability Research and and the Role of Non-Disabled Researchers’
Rioux and Bach, 1984, ‘Disability Is Not Measles: New Research Paradigms in Disability’
B. Skeggs, 1997, ‘Formations of Class and Gender’
G. Zarb, 1997, ‘Researching Disabling Barriers’

Several of these links will take you to the Leeds Disability Archive, a fantastic resource with many open-access articles on disability theory and research.

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About Naomi J.

Disabled PhD researcher and lapsed activist. Researching disability, Christianity and the Bible at University of Sheffield.
This entry was posted in disability theory, emancipatory research, research and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Emancipatory Disability Research (or: Why it matters that the ‘academy’ isn’t more accessible for disabled people)

  1. Heather says:

    Only just read this… d’oh. Thank you, though, for clarifying what you meant.

    Questions, essentially, that strike to the very centre of what empiricism might be, and its authority in research…

    • naomijacobs says:

      Ah, glad you found this post, Heather! That’s only really one part of the ‘why this subject is important’ question. This explains why I want to do it in the *way* that I do. There’s also the question of why bother researching the church and disability in the first place. I touched on that in my opening post, but I want to come back to it and explore what ‘uncovering the roof’ means to me, at some point soon. And I shall! Eventually. Silly research and theory, getting in the way of blogging.

  2. frank says:

    Great post. You raise some really interesting and difficult issues.

    “I’m interested in finding creative and accessible ways to put disabled people in control of research that affects them…”

    To be honest I think academia in general can often (although not always) fail at creative and accessible anything. It is so often a closed institution in which any different voice (other than white western males) difficult to hear. But I think that culture and circumstance also play their part in restricting diversity and perhaps academia needs to recognise, not only its own shortcomings, but this as well and compensate accordingly.

  3. findsandfeatures says:

    Have you seen http://researchblogging.org/ ?
    I don’t know that much about it, but I wonder if your post would fit in there, and whether you’d be interested in that?

    • naomijacobs says:

      Apologies for missing this comment before. I’ve seen research blogging but didn’t know whether my blog would be intellectual enough to submit! I’ll have a closer look – thanks :)

  4. naomijacobs says:

    Kim: Objectivity and subjectivity are issues, yes – but then, so is the social model of disability, and other standpoint approaches. There are many people in many social science disciplines that argue that objectivity in research is a myth, though.

  5. Kim Bond says:

    Oo, do the critics cite proximity to the subject as a cause for concern? Implying that an emotional connection will cloud the objective reasoning?

    Would these critics really rather all resaerch was conducted by psycho/sociopaths?

  6. Kim Bond says:

    What of all the things we do not know because no one has thought to ask?!

    There should be more disabled researchers. whatever the subject of research, but especially conducting disability research.

    If the observer influences the observed, then the traits of the observer will be influential. If all researchers could be identified by their green hair, it would impact the resaerch process if a researcher dyed their hair pink. Sometimes the act of being in a role can challenge assumptions.

    Hmm… perhaps those who are opposed to X researching X are those who would rather the filaings of their own reaserch, of the bias of their assumptions, were not highlighted? Or is it a fear of such that strikes a defensive blow?

  7. naomijacobs says:

    Kim: I wouldn’t say emancipatory disability research itself is very controversial (although it does have a lot of critics). My concern that there should be more disabled researchers conducting disability research is more controversial. But I entirely agree with your point. Different perspectives give quality to research.

    • Nadia says:

      Hi Naomi,
      My name is Nadia and I just started a PhD. Just saw you blog and enjoyed reading it. For me its highly informative as I am a disabled researcher and my research is about disabled academics. Your quest to find outwhy they should be more disabled researchers conducting research on disability intrests me cause I was wondering its not necessary for a Cardiologist to have a heart problem in order to experience it to become a heart doctor.

  8. Kim Bond says:

    It’s VERY controversial? That logic would be controversial, pointedly in research, is shocking but sadly unsurprising.

    Whenever the common trait central to the research can be present, represented, in the research team it makes sense for that to be the case. It makes sense to have a diverse field of researchers. Perspective is a great influencer of truth. With a mix of people comes a mix of assumptions, as well as a mix of traits, methodologies, and ideas. Different perspectives lead to different questions, different approaches, different results. Who conducts research matters.

    It os good to have different viewpoints because we learn different things, & the overall sum of knowledge increases, & isn’t that what The Academy is really for?

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