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> > > Disability and Social Change: Private lives and public policies

8 June 2011

Sonali Shah and Mark Priestley's study covers a history of disabled peoples' lives from the 1940s to the 1980s

By Sophie Partridge

book cover

Disability and Social Change: Private lives and public policies

To quote the back-cover, this research publication really is 'a fascinating study in which more conventional histories of post-war disability are challenged through the skilful use of life stories.'

It consists of 60, first-hand interviews with three generations of (physically impaired, not including sensory or learning) disabled people; those born in the 1940's, 60’s & 80’s. Interviewees tell of family life, education, work.. and dealings with the medical profession! 

Each chapter / section is contextualised alongside the policies of that period and almost always reveal contradictions with people’s lives. In terms of employment for example, although officially disabled people were geared towards sheltered work placements with the introduction of Disablement Resettlement Officers (DRO's), the reality was that individuals were actually getting themselves jobs, in the open market. What also becomes apparent, is how several individuals came to 'a disabled identity', through Disability Arts; not least because this was (and remains) an employment resource.

Government policies appeared to most obviously inflict on private lives, with medical intervention for those born in the 40s and for those (including myself) in the 1980s, through education. Many interviewees from that first period spent their early years in sustained, painful (in many ways) periods in hospital, with little family interaction.

For example Florence tells how she was given up by her birth mother, due to her impairments and remained in hospital, until she was adopted fortunately adopted. In this time-frame, there was little 'special' educational provision as such but this changed for the next generation.. and off to residential schools the majority of us went! Again, many of the interviewees tell of the isolation they felt at these establishments. Teenage years can be bewildering at the best of times and to be cast into a segregated environment, away from everything that is familiar... was (and remains for current generations)... hard.

Common to all interviewees, seems the struggle to create lives for themselves, post and / or despite state intervention. A word much used in the book is agency.  Within academia this term is used to mean intercession and those cited by the interviewees as most likely to `intercede’ positively for them, along-side self-agency / advocacy are.. yep.. mums! Those in official positions to provide agency however, don’t come across as being much cop at all, eg. DROs & Career Advisors.

One of the aims of this publication was to illustrate contrasts and comparisons between generations. The personal testimonies within this book highlight the old adage that, as much as some things change, others very much remain the same.

Barriers to living full, inclusive lives do vary for each era; individuals of the 1940s hauled themselves, however possible, up steps, whilst those born in the 80s wheel up ramps. Yet all participants tell of institutional prejudice and ignorance. This publication confirms what WE, already know – that we have come a long way but still have SO far to go.  As a piece of academia, hopefully it will serve to bring this knowledge to those that apparently, don’t!

Disability and Social Change: Private lives and public policies is available via Amazon

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