The Disability Research Centre at Goldsmiths is a new interdisciplinary research grouping which will both conduct and promote research relating to disability and highlight the endemic nature of disablism. 12 November 2015 saw its launch with a series of talks delivered around the pertinent topic of disability and austerity. Joe Turnbull reports.
Academic research can often – justifiably – be seen as aloof from everyday concerns; insulated in an ivory tower or else ceaselessly self-referential and of little benefit to anyone but the cognoscenti. So the launch of the Disability Research Centre (DRC), even if it is explicitly critical of our disabling society, may not register with most disabled people outside of academia. But perhaps it should.
The DRC set out its stall with this launch event, by theming it around disability and austerity, as if announcing that this would be the type of research firmly rooted in, and aimed at the advancement of, the everyday realities of disabled people, beset on all sides by the political establishment. This was a shrewd move. The evening took the format of aurally delivered academic papers around the theme, with a short talk delivered by guest of honour, Baroness Jane Campbell.
In the month that marked the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, Campbell – who was instrumental in bringing about the legislation – recalled what a vital role academic research had played in the campaign. She cited the influence of Professor Colin Barnes’s seminal Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination for the campaign: “at last the case was made. And of course, the rest is history”.
She also lauded her close friend Michael Oliver’s writings on the social model, “that liberated hundreds of thousands of disabled people just like me”. Campbell concluded that she felt the DRC would be vital ally to disabled people in the years ahead.
Prof. Dan Goodley kicked off the academic talks with a piece co-authored with Rebbeca Lawthom, which the other pieces were written in response to. Goodley spoke about the ‘cruel optimism’ of austerity:
“an idea that the reduction of public expenditure and the rolling back of welfare necessarily permits the autonomous, ready and able worker to step in (and we mean step in, not roll in) to the breach; to fill the empty spaces left by a receding welfare system.”
Goodley and Lawthom gravely acknowledged that this is a matter of life and death for many disabled people. But they also see some reasons for hope. Hope in new social theories like Jasbir Puar’s concept of ‘debility,’ which posits that everyone, disabled and non-disabled alike, are victims of the impossible standards of neoliberal ableism – a thought that may foreground collective action among a broad spectrum of oppressed people. And hope in the inclusive and creative nature of campaigns like the Justice for LB campaign – which demands justice for the ‘entirely preventable’ death of Connor Wickham in an NHS hospital.
Elsewhere, Lisa Blackman drew a parallel between the current climate of austerity with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Both periods are typified by the decimation of communities: the latter as a result of the inertia of governments; the former being marked by the direct actions of governments which are “the prime driver of the brutalities being wreaked upon people living with disabilities”. Blackman was sympathetic to Puar’s notion of debility as a unifying tool but warned against it becoming totalising and noted how important it is to be aware of differences in class, race, gender and sexuality.
Andrew Power described austerity as a “nightmarish Tory fairy-tale of epic proportions,” but was also keen to point out areas for optimism. Alongside more obvious direct action like the #ATOSKills campaign, he spoke about less obvious forms of resistance, or ‘quiet politics’. He used the example of work he has been doing with learning-disabled adults in Southampton, finding that they were “self-building” their own safe-havens and support networks in order to get by in the context of austerity.
Finally, Monica Greco spoke about the neurotic fantasy of neoliberalism which forces everyone to live up to impossible standards of being ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’. As a result of this, and the predominance of rational ‘evidence-based’ medicine, those who are ill or impaired find themselves constantly having to prove it – redirecting their energy on enacting illness rather than getting better.
To soften the academic bent of the evening an exhibition of photographs, Over the Hill which documents Tim Andrews’s journey with Parkinson’s taken over seven years, was on display outside. It was a magical yet haunting collection of images taken by different photographers. Three films from Oska Bright 2015 also rounded the evening off.
If there was a take-home message, it was that theory and action cannot exist independently of one another; you cannot have effective direct action without a theoretical framework to carry it out. Just maybe, the DRC may give birth to theories that will have has a big a positive impact on the disabled people’s movement against austerity as the social model has had since the 1990s.