Review of `Exploring Disability’ by Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer

Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer (2010) Exploring Disability – Second Edition.  Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kayleigh A. Garthwaite is a postgraduate researcher at the Department of Geography at Durham University.

Just over a decade after the first edition of ‘Exploring Disability’ was published, the second edition (minus Tom Shakespeare’s presence) has emerged amidst a growing interests in disability studies from a sociological perspective.  As a result of this, Barnes and Mercer felt it apt to produce a second edition of the text to include not only an updated and revised version of the previous text, but also two new chapters that focus upon; firstly, genetics and their implications for people with accredited impairments and long term limiting illness conditions. The second chapter looks at disability and impairment in poorer or underdeveloped countries.

From the outset, the book very much takes on a stance which prioritises the rights of disabled people, beginning with a detailed description of the grass roots mobilisation of disabled people. Through discussing the work of major disability theorists, starting from within traditional sociological approaches to disability and then moving on to those working from within the social model or rights based perspective, the authors ensure that they are very much distanced from the notion of disability as a ‘personal tragedy’. This topic is covered in depth by the first two chapters of the collection.

Chapter 3 is crucial to help us understand sociological approached to chronic illness and disability. A thorough review of illness and the social begins with Talcott Parsons’ (1951) classic functionalist analysis of the ‘sick role’ and finishing with post-structuralist analyses of illness. As the authors not win this chapter, above all what is clear is that ‘medical sociologists do not ‘hunt as a pack’’ (p. 69). This chapter recognises the diversity of approaches and further explores these issues in chapter 4, which dissects theories of disability in more depth.

Chapter 5 features an even more timely consideration of disability policy and the welfare state, given the recent Spending Review (20th October 2010) and its’ implications for disabled people and people who receive benefits due to a chronic illness or disability. Tracing back the historical roots of the relationship between the state and disability policy, Barnes and Mercer devote a separate subheading to New Labour and how their buzz term of social exclusion related to disability. Further subheadings relating to education, employment, transport and leisure and social participation provide an even more convincing case for the wide ranging multitude of barriers that can impact upon the disabled population. Continuing in the same vein, chapter 6 focuses upon routes to independent living and the impact of social policy. The authors conclude that progress has been uneven; therefore, independent living is not something that can be achieved for all disabled people. This chapter leads on fluidly to the political process and disabled people in chapter 7. The following chapter examines the place of disability in culture and the wider media, exploring various stereotypes and generalisations that are often associated with disabled people. The authors point out that public opinion towards prejudicial images directed at disabled people has become more sensitive; however, further work remains to be done to avoid the stigmatisation of disabled people.

Finally, chapters 9 and 10 represent the new chapters in this edition. The first chapter, ‘Disability and the right to life’, explores the minefield of ethics, euthanasia, eugenics and biotechnology. The authors conclude that often, the general view that living with an impairment is living with no life at all only seeks to reinforce the ‘personal tragedy’ view of disability, which in turn undermines the great strides taken in relation to the social and political rights of disabled people. Chapter 10 moves on to consider global perspectives of disability, given that the remainder of the book has focused upon Westernised culture and societies. Reflecting upon the growing internationalisation of disability politics and policies, this chapter identifies the differences between various countries and argues that ‘there is no globalized disability identity and culture’ (p. 264). However, the relationship between extreme poverty and disability are inseparable, with the chapter ending on the much emphasised point that disabled people have made progress through the establishment of their own organizations and through campaigning for social justice.

Overall, this second edition of Exploring Disability outlines the relationship between disabled people and disability theory, all underpinned by an emancipatory disability research model as the basis for a continued sociological understanding and analysis of disability, which very much focuses upon the campaigning and pursuit of social justice and equality for disabled people, by disabled people. As mentioned, the collection does focus upon Westernised culture and societies, so if that’s what you’re interested in, then great. This second edition is a must read for not only those who are interested in disability studies, but sociologists who possess an interest in fairness and equality should also make sure they don’t miss out on this one.


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