Today I’m off to Leeds, to take part in a pre-conference event before the British Sociological Association Annual Conference. This is a bit of funny event for me. If someone had told me 10 years ago that I’d be invited, I’d have fallen off my chair with disbelief.
I loved sociology from my A level lessons back in Essex in 1981 when our teacher was off campaigning at Greenham Common more than teaching us. When she was there, she was an inspiration. In her absence we had a locum who was pretty underwhelming. She kind of lost the attention of the class of 17 year olds when she talked about ‘orgies’ using a hard ‘g’. But it didn’t matter. Delight and interest was ignited.
It was more than 10 years before I returned to university at Oxford Brookes to study sociology and anthropology as a mature student. At the same time LB, as a pup, was in the process of being diagnosed as “different” in a problematic way. I was able to make some sense of the way in which he was treated as ‘unacceptable’ or ‘other’ through the course, and the work of people like Erving Goffman, Robert Bogdan and Spencer Cahill. I went from Brookes to Warwick to do a PhD under the informed, thoughtful, creative and humorous supervision of Janet Read. Another inspiration. This was, again, a pleasure. Of reading and immersing myself in writing and research around disability, difference and public interactions. Of mothering and disability studies.
I landed my first full time academic post in 2007, brimming with blinking optimism and a firm belief that robust research could inform change.
This optimism began to be dented in recent years when faced with the divergence between policy talk/evidence and what LB was experiencing in terms of support, encouragement and an imagined future. Basically all talk and no action. An extension of what he (and we) had experienced since diagnosis but worse, because it was about his future.
Pah. C’mon sociological community, I thought. Step up. Whatchadoing?
Not an awful lot really. A wealth of brilliant research conducted by the likes of the Tizard Centre, the Norah Fry Research Centre, the Centre for Disability Research and other drops of brilliance* dotted around various universities but also pretty much silence when it came to more mainstream sociological engagement with ‘learning disabled’ people. A year or so ago I contacted the BSA about setting up a Disability Study Group. ‘Ain’t we got one?’ was the puzzled response. There are numerous study groups for pretty much every topic under the sun. A search back through BSA records confirmed that there had never been one.
Wow. A discipline that is, or should be, about understanding the social. Engaging with different forms, shapes, spaces, emotions and embodiment. Examining social issues and making visible underlying structures and enduring inequalities… Disability, and particularly learning disability? Forget it.
So I’m trekking up to Leeds. To chat with postgraduate students and ask them why they think learning disabled people are ignored/marginalised in sociological research. And to reflect on whether we ain’t very good sociologists or whether the discipline is part of the problem.
So, a funny event. And one I’m dedicating to LB. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be going. Or asking these questions.