Discourse on justice
Gary Thomas considers to what extent disability is a social construct. Most new books recycle existing thought, but occasionally a book comes along which offers a new set of ideas and a fresh perspective. This international compilation does both: it provides the familiar alongside the original.
Although nominally about disability and social justice, this book contains two themes. The first indeed concerns social justice, and here its contribution is original and important.
However, the other theme concerns the social construction of disability and cultural repression. This theme - now familiar - represents what the philosopher Canguilhem, Foucault's mentor, has called an "impoverished version of Marxism", which accounts for phenomena (such as disability) principally through their relation to economic and social interests, technological needs and social practices. Thus, in the words of one chapter's authors, disability is "a socially constituted and reproduced set of relationships within which impairment is given social meaning and people experience processes of power directed at their bodies". The authors of another chapter contend that disabled individuals are sidelined because they are "economically unproductive".
These assertions about social construction and oppression are supposedly rooted in an understanding of the discourses of dominant groups and special needs educators. The notion of discourse is important to this book.If you did a frequency count on its words you would find "discourse" near the top of the list.
However, the discourse-based understanding sits uneasily with an implicit dirigism - an unspoken belief that inherited and institutionalised habits of thought can somehow be transformed via the pronouncements of academics. For there are many invocations to change: "What is required now is a 'complex equality' construction with a strong recognition of cultural rights within a broad redistributive framework."
While the discourse of special education professionals and experts is examined and challenged, certain chapter authors seem to feel the need to perpetuate an arcane, complex discourse in their academic discussion of disability.
Among some who write here, there seems to be the feeling that in order to be taken seriously one has to employ the writing style of the less user-friendly translations of Foucault and Bourdieu. While the discourse of the special needs expert is analysed and criticised, that of the meta-expert - the academic who analyses these discourses - is evidently expected to be immune from critique.
However, the style should not detract from the clear strengths of this book. Several of the chapters, such as those of Dorothy Lipsky and Alan Gartner, Barry Troyna and Carol Vincent, and Sally Tomlinson, are models of clarity. Tomlinson, for instance, revisits and updates her forceful critique of professionals in special education.
The powerful central theme, which survives the often obtuse style, provides a new and valuable contribution to the debate about justice for disabled people. Rawls's A Theory of Justice is the touchstone against which new ideas are offered and discussed. Rawls argued that in general there should be an equal distribution of social resources, but that there should be a bias in this distribution in favour of those who are "disadvantaged".
Several of the chapter authors criticise the notion that there is some discrete class of people who are disabled. People with disabilities, they argue, are as heterogeneous as people in general and the agglomeration of all disabilities alienates disabled people from other minorities. The stressing of a minority status - in disability or in any other area - emphasises the putative weakness and vulnerability of the group in question rather than the inadequacies of the supposedly supportive system.
The aggregation of people with hugely different difficulties as "disabled" is problematic, and is a shortcoming in a book which challenges the medicalisation of disability. In particular, the presentation of learning difficulty as learning "disability" suggests and maintains the unfounded notion that some psycho-physical disorder is at the root of children's difficulty with their work at school.
Although the message is clouded by the language in which it is delivered in some of these essays, this collection undoubtedly presents an original contribution to contemporary debate on disability, justice and inclusion.
Gary Thomas is professor and reader in education at the University of the West of England, Bristol.