Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Colin Barnes, Geof Mercer and Tom Shakespeare.
Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction.
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press (in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd.), 1999, 280 pp. $US 29.95 paper (0745614787) $US 66.95 cloth (0745614779).

For any scholar working in medical sociology, or more specifically, in the area of disability studies, this book is a valuable resource. It provides a comprehensive review of theoretical orientations and research on the topic, especially work carried out in the United Kingdom. Its “central objective is ... [to] contribute to and stimulate ... wider debates about the process of disablement” (p. 9). There is no doubt that this objective will be achieved when the volume reaches its intended audience.

The authors begin with a call for the development of a “sociological imagination” to move disability studies beyond the traditional conception of disability as an individual problem with medical/physiological roots and treatments. They argue for a “social model of disability” that “concentrates on a set of causes established externally ... the effects of physical, social and economic disabling barriers experienced by disabled people” (p. 30). Such a social model of disability, they suggest, concentrates on the experience of disability not as an individual phenomenon, but as a product of the social world in which people with disabilities live. They document very thoroughly the kinds of “disabling barriers” (Ch. 5) that confront those with disabilities in their everyday lives. They highlight issues of family life and sexuality; of access to education and the debate over “special” education for people with disabilities; of opportunities for equal employment; of challenges of the built environment, housing and transportation; and of legitimate chances to participate in the political processes that able-bodied individuals take for granted.

Having thus set the stage, the authors offer a wide-ranging critical review of sociological research in the area of disability studies, setting the history of the study of disability firmly within the traditional theoretical frameworks used by medical sociologists. Not surprisingly, they find these traditional approaches lacking in many respects and conclude that a new perspective, disability theory, is required to advance the study of disablement. They devote considerable effort to proposing such a theory, one that is based in political and social action that grows out of the belief that disability is a form of oppression. They go on to provide strong evidence that such a theory of disability has merit, drawing on a considerable body of literature, principally research conducted in Britain. There seems to be a history of British social action research, often conducted by people who themselves are disabled. The involvement of disabled activists in such research lends increased legitimacy, urgency and ownership to their work.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the authors’ effort to cast disability as the fodder of a new social movement. They draw parallels between disability and race, gender and sexual orientation as examples of how social movements develop in the face of oppression. They argue that for fundamental social change to occur in the lives of disabled people, these people themselves must take leadership roles in social protests, in research and in politics, and that the creation of a group identity as “disabled people” is an essential first step. They suggest that “social policy has remained locked into an individualistic, medical approach and as such has been disabling rather than enabling in its impact on disabled people” (p. 124).

As is often the case with pioneering works, the authors limit their discussion of opposing points of view. Although they acknowledge that not all women identify themselves as “feminists” and that not all African-Americans see themselves as oppressed blacks, this acknowledgement seems perfunctory at best. They note the example of the Deaf culture, an identified group of individuals born deaf who communicate solely in sign language. Individuals who are born deaf but who have learned oral communication, who use hearing aids to amplify what residual hearing they may have, are excluded from such a culture, but hearing people born of deaf parents who learned sign language as their first language may be included. What the authors fail to acknowledge is that such a culture can itself become oppressive to those who choose not to identify themselves with it. Deaf individuals who function in the ‘hearing world’ have been ostracized by the Deaf culture simply because they do not proclaim their deafness and claim it as their principal identifying characteristic. It appears to me that by merely paying lip-service to the existence of contrary points of view, the authors risk alienating some of the very people they believe will benefit from this “new social movement.”

Having said this, I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in the study of disability or medical sociology more generally. It collects in one place a wide variety of research and puts forward a reasoned argument for looking at this field in a different way. While I may not agree with all the authors have to say, I find myself thinking about the issues with a fresh view; to the extent that others do the same, they will benefit from the experience.

B. Gail (Frankel) Perry, PhD
Department of Sociology
The University of Western Ontario
January 2000
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