Bridging a divide

(Edmonton) Two University of Alberta researchers are teaming up to find answers to long-standing issues around disability.

Danielle Peers, a physical education and recreation PhDstudent, and Rob Wilson, a philosophy professor, say that by bridging disciplines, they will create a space where others can participate to help find solutions to some of the socio-political issues around disability.

An example is a workshop they organized last week called Disability, Sport & Ableism: From Pistorius to Para-Olympism: Contentious Paralympic Issues. It brought to the U of A leading scholars from around the world working on issues of disability and sport. Wilson says the meeting provided researchers within the university’s community a chance to connect with colleagues.

“We want to change some minds and get people to think critically. But importantly, it’s about creating that positive space and getting people together who might not have heard of each other or don’t realize they’re working on things that are related,” Wilson says. “And that’s the cross-fertilization in these different areas, and that’s what’s exciting.”

Peers says the area of sport and disability hasn’t had a critical focus before. “Sport is never taken up by people who study disability. And people who take up studies in sport don’t study disability�not in a critical way. As a result you have this very medical view,” she says.

And because of that perception, the question is often asked, “how do we fix disability?” says Peers, a Vanier and Trudeau Scholar. “Disability is always seen as a problem�it’s a medical problem needing rehabilitation, a population problem needing sterilization and a political problem needing human rights.”

In popular culture, Peers says representations of disabled athletes have made a huge contribution to the ways we think of disability. But the successes of heroic sports figures create a perception that the challenges faced by people with disability in society are personal, both researchers say.

“The representations in the public domain are these extreme representations of super, super achievers. That must distort all of these issues people with disability face,” Wilson says. “It sets up this standard—‘if that person can do it, why can’t you?’ It allows people to ignore the social realities or think of it as a matter of individual achievement.”

More than 80 per cent of women with physical disabilities have been sexually assaulted in their lives. Forty-three per cent of people with disabilities in Canada are unemployed and of those who are employed, there’s a vast majority who are underemployed. These are the social realities faced by people with disability, Peers says.

“The litany of statistics of people living with disability shows that it’s not a trivial problem to solve and that’s partly because disability has been so much out of the mindset as we built our cultures,” says Wilson, who is also director of Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, a project funded by the Community-University Research Alliances that aims, in part, to highlight the history of eugenics in Canada.

Turning the mindset about disability around would require new ways of thinking, says Wilson. The creation of a community of researchers working on issues connected with disability is a good step forward. “Generally, philosophers can bring more piercing critical tools to a set of ideas and practices. They can point out inconsistencies and challenge assumptions that people just haven’t noticed before. And not just in abstract ways,” he says.

“We can engage in meaningful discussions in very concrete ways that people who’re making policies, decisions and plans will have to grapple with. They may not have thought about it this way before.”