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Disability as an entanglement: A new materialist reimagination of disability

Research and contemporary practice indicate that people labelled as learning disabled remain positioned on the margins of humanity, despite decades of hard work from the disability rights movement, support workers, and families and whānau, among many others (Goodley, 2017). In this thesis, I seek to find some answers as to why this situation persists. I seek further to investigate if this ongoing marginalisation can be challenged through using new materialist theory to reimagine disability. The thesis begins by outlining the big picture of disability oppression in Aotearoa New Zealand and across the globe. Thereafter, literature from disability studies and the humanities more widely is drawn upon to argue that the binary notions of “learning disability” and “normal, ideal humans” are not fixed, indisputable concepts. Instead, they can be viewed as artefacts of the historical, spiritual, political and social structures which have emerged over the past few centuries in the Western world. Learning disability becomes of necessity positioned as inferior within this binary and, it can be argued further, this positioning plays a crucial role in the validation and perpetuation of disability oppression. The key conceptual frameworks shaping policy and practice in Aotearoa New Zealand are examined. This is done with a focus on the ontological underpinning of the ideal human inherent in many of these frameworks, and how this underpinning inhibits challenge to exclusionary structures and practices. The conceptual framework is formed from agential realism (Barad), citational chains and lines of flight (Bergson / Butler, as used by Davies), performativity (Butler), affect (Wetherell), desiring silence (Jackson and Mazzei), and disability pride (Parsons). Datum was generated through a series of nine “hui”, or research meetings. These were held with a co-facilitator and seven participants, all of whom have been assigned the label of learning disabled through diagnostic processes. The analysis begins with participant responses to the collaborative exploration of ideas related to disability pride and ableism. Whilst there was evidence that participants enjoyed discussions related to ableism, many displayed a powerful adverse reaction to visual displays on pride. In particular, participants’ affective responses to the videos and discussions regarding pride signalled the limitations of the view that the problem is largely discursive. Exploring this challenge using the conceptual framework ultimately enabled me to propose a new means of conceptualising disability: disability as an ongoing series of entanglements. The entanglements which rose to the fore during data generation and analysis were the affective entanglements of disability, the desire for recognition as a viable subject, the silences regarding disability, and the drive to help. This thesis proposes that these entanglements serve to further the inferiorisation of disability and hold it in a static place of “otherness”, and thus foreclose potential for radical transformation to exclusionary structures and practices. However, by drawing upon agential realism I also highlight the ever-present possibility of rupture which lies within each of these entanglements. Based on the findings of this thesis, I conclude that radical potential for change can potentially be found by understanding and reworking these entanglements.
Type of thesis
Jones, I. R. (2019). Disability as an entanglement: A new materialist reimagination of disability (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/12433
The University of Waikato
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