Reappraising the Social Model of Disability: A Foucauldian Reprise

Reappraising the Social Model of Disability: A Foucauldian Reprise

William J. Penson (Leeds Metropolitan University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-183-2.ch009

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This chapter will problematise current disability theory with reference to a number of Foucault’s texts but in particular ‘Docile bodies’ (Foucault, 1975; 1991). The purpose of terming this chapter a reprise is in recognition of the previous critiques that have been raised through applying Foucauldian theory in disability discourse and in understanding the lived experience of disabled people (see Tremain (2009) for a particularly relevant coverage). This is most significantly applied in relation to constructions of impairment, the body and the mind, the primacy given to such constructions, ontological conflicts and indeed the social model of disability as a practice that follows. There remains some merit in further developing the synthesis of Foucault’s work and disability theory, and at points I speculate on the use of postcolonial perspectives in disability as an allied area of post-structuralism, given that Foucault is often associated with the post-structuralist school.

Before expanding on this argument it is necessary to explain why this might be of interest in a discussion of education for adult learners, given that adult learning in higher education is of most concern for this book. I would suggest that the relevance of this chapter could be seen in four ways. Firstly, that education is organised within disciplines and institutions and so an exploration and critique of such an organising system is crucial to understanding educational operations. Secondly, that generally the social model of disability is viewed as a progressive, contemporary approach to understanding disability and responding to the needs of disabled learners. Given the status of the social model of disability, it is important that it is discussed in terms of its limitations and benefits. Thirdly, that the activities of taxonomy, that is the activities of ‘empowered description’, are applied to adult learners and that this application has a power effect in designating learners as ‘bright’, ‘dyslexic’, ‘introverted’, ‘failing’, for instance. These ways of separating different kinds of learner have an impact on the learner and the operations of education. I coin the term ‘empowered description’ as a way of denoting systems of arbitrary taxonomy that have an organising effect and are privileged with, and through, authority. I would consider the term ‘empowered description’ to be one that most accurately reflects practices that can otherwise be camouflaged in the use of the word ‘taxonomy’ behind an implied legitimacy, obscuring the partiality of the word. Finally, I suggest that Higher Education is a key location for the disability discourse to develop as a critical perspective, in the interests of disabled people. However, both inside the higher learning institution, and outside, disability activism and discourse is offered a limited regard, and as such, disability discourse is a ‘subjugated knowledge’, that is, as a certain category of knowledge claim that is/are seen as less viable than other knowledge claims such as medicine. Higher education is crucial as a place from which resistance can be mobilised in response to disciplinary power. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to offer a Foucauldian analysis of Higher Education as a whole, indeed this may be contraindicated given it would be an attempt at a unifying, generalised perspective, but rather the critique I do proffer is problematising the social model of disability, and that is through a lens that I apply to the practices of psychiatry.

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