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Disability Concepts in the UK and Latin America

This project was funded by a grant from the British Academy UK-Latin America Link Programme, as a collaboration between the University of Leeds and Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede (FLACSO, Ecuador). The purpose of the project was to build on existing contacts between European and Latin American universities to create greater understanding, to develop joint publications, and to build potential for future research collaboration. By sharing our understanding of disability theory and culture we developed common ground and promoted Iberoamerican perspectives in critical disability studies, which has been dominated by an Anglophone literature and Eurocentric theory. The principal researchers are Mark Priestley (Leeds) and Xavier Andrade (Quito).


The meetings allowed established scholars and young researchers from different disciplines to understand the theoretical, conceptual, cultural and political developments that are shaping new approaches to disability policy and research in the international context. For example, in the UK, the new paradigm for disability studies owes much to a ‘social model’ approach that explains the contemporary disadvantage experienced by disabled people as a historical product of the social relations of industrial capitalism and the cultural values of Western individualism. New approaches in Latin America (as in the USA) have placed greater emphasis on disability as an issue of human and civil rights. In different countries the development of new research paradigms within Universities has occurred either in competition with, or in parallel to, approaches based on medicine, rehabilitation, social work, ‘special’ education and indigenous studies.

Latin American disability activists have been at the forefront of disabled people’s civil rights campaigns and have contributed much to the political debate. This contribution culminated with the Mexican government’s sponsored of proposals for the first United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. Agreed in December 2006, this groundbreaking international Treaty opens for signature by the world’s government on 20 March 2007 and introduces new obligations on states to protect and promote the human rights of disabled people in all the major areas of life. With such significant developments it is essential that academics and young researchers are equipped with a state-of-the-art knowledge about current theories and methods to support their governments towards social change. The international growth and development of new disability theories and concepts has been rapid and dramatic but it has been shaped by Anglophone literature and debates, in which contributions from the UK, North America and Scandinavia have been dominant over perspectives from developing countries. Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries have been particularly excluded from these developments. Developing greater links between UK and Latin American scholars meets the urgent need to redress this imbalance on both counts at a critical moment of policy development.

Seminar 1: paradigms, theories and concepts (Leeds 2008)

In the first meeting we focused our discussions on concepts and theories of disability. The key question here was to ask which models of disability influence thinking and practice in different cultural and political contexts. What are the dominant discourses of disability and where do they come from? For example, how do Western/European/Anglo-centric cultural histories affect the way disabled people are treated in society? Such traditional Western influences might include religious (Christian), secular (rational individualism) and scientific (biomedical) models of disability. To what extent have European discourses influenced understandings of disability in Latin America? Similarly, what traditional discourses of disability exist in indigenous Andean cultures?

It was then important to discuss the tensions between traditional models and the new disability paradigms that are shaping global research and policy today. Here, the important developments include ‘social models’, minority group models and human rights models developed from the ideas of the international disabled people’s movement. To what extent are these new models ‘international’ or are they also examples of Western cultural imperialism? In this way, we were able to explore the dynamics between three dimensions of explanation (in the UK/Europe and in Andean/Latin America). These may be characterised as (a) traditional models, (b) biomedical-therapeutic models, and (c) socio-political models. To add to these debates, we queried how the concepts of colonialism and post-colonialism can help us understand disability in cross-cultural research (e.g. the colonisation of disabled people’s lives by professionals in Western welfare states; the colonisation of indigenous Andean belief and practice by Western biomedicine; or the anti-colonial struggles of disabled people in their claims to human rights and independent living, etc.).

Seminar 2: from theory to practice (Quito 2009)

Here we considered the implications of critical theories and paradigms for implementation and practice. The key question to ask was how different models of disability influence different interventions in support of disabled people’s full inclusion in society. Which models are being used by different agencies and what effect do they have on outcomes for disabled people? For example, to what extent do non-governmental organisations use biomedical, social, cultural or human rights models in their disability and development work? How do disabled activists use different models of disability to support their campaigns and claims? Which models of disability are influencing policy makers and legislators in Latin America? Which models of disability are needed in university programmes to enable future researchers and professionals to support independent living for disabled people?

To this end, the second meeting brought together academic researchers and educators, activists from Latin American disability movements, development NGOs and policy makers. In this way, we were able to explore the utility of different disability models in different contexts – and the tensions between them. As in the first meeting, it was important to debate the tension between international (often Western) models and those arising from Latin American (and indigenous Andean) cultures or politics. The new United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People provided a useful framework to explore the significance of ‘human rights’ models in the Latin American context.