Jukka and Hisayo in the 4th Biennial Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University, 2-4 September 2008

By Hisayo Katsui

In UK, the disability movement and Disability Studies as an academic discipline are inseparable. Many scholars are both academics and activists. It was very interesting for me to observe this strong activism in the conference which was organised by the Centre for Disability Research, Lancaster University. It was attended by 200 participants from more than 20 countries. I’d like to thank the organisers for their works for this conference to come true.

Arguments throughout the conference were centred around reaffirmation of the “social model” of disability and strong will to maintain the model in the future of Disability Studies in UK. This was a bit of a surprise to me, though I took my Master’s Degree in Disability Studies in England back in 1999. Now that I am based in Finland where human rights talk is perhaps stronger than the “social model”, I felt something is missing. I asked Professor Peter Beresford, who was one of the plenary speakers, how British Disability Studies deal with human rights. His answer was like this: the “social model” is touching human rights. As “social model” has been contested, some started to use human rights terminology. He thus implied that there are not so many who use human rights-based approach to disability in UK.

I also noticed a lot of accusation of post-modernistic approach. Some even named them as “crazy post-modernists” which was not questioned but welcomed. The latest book of Tom Shakespeare, one of the post-modernists, “Disability Rights and Wrongs” was inspiring for me. In this sense, I felt a distance to the mainstream participants. This distance is actually what I felt more strongly when I was taking my Master’s Degree. In the late 1990s, being disabled person was so integral part of both the disability movement and the Disability Studies in UK, which made me feel excluded. In his speech, Professor Colin Barnes, who is a social modelist, acknowledged both disabled and non-disabled academics’ achievements in this discipline. Thus, there has been a change over time. But I got the impression that this specific conference was attended mainly by conventional social modelists, if I could call them so. (Or they were the most vocal ones.) Having said that, I observed many participants with disabilities, which is not the case in Nordic disability conferences. I think it is important that Disability Studies as a discipline is accessible not only for (both disabled and non-disabled) academics but also for persons with disabilities.

Another experience I want to share is my quasi-personal assistant role. Jukka’s assistant cancelled her coming one day before, which gave me the opportunity to learn part of the regular responsibilities of personal assistant. It was a great learning experience for me. It heavily rained all three days (what else we should expect from English weather??), which made our days a bit more exciting (Please see the picture!).

Jukka had informed that he is a wheelchair user, but his accommodation was inaccessible for the first day “by accident” and he had to use the room. The conference organisers did not mean to discriminate Jukka with the first arrangement of the room. With Jukka, we discussed a lot about differences and similarities between direct and indirect discrimination. Does it matter or not, when you do not intend to discriminate persons with disabilities but the end result is discriminatory?

The conference has left many questions to elaborate further. I also met many interesting people, with some of whom we agreed to do some projects together in the near future. In many senses, it was a very interesting conference.

Conference website: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/events/disabilityconference/