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From Womb to Tomb: Disability, social policy and the life course

Dr Mark Priestley

A three-year programme of research, funded by a personal ESRC Fellowship Award (number R000271078) - from June 1999 to May 2002.


The research investigated the relationship between disability, generation and the life course, with a particular emphasis on the impact of social policies.

The legislative framework for social policy employs medicalised measures of impairment and chronological age to police the boundaries of the normal life course. Yet, impairment needs to be clearly distinguished from disability, as age should be distinguished from generation. Both disability and generation are culturally constructed and socially produced in modern societies. Moreover, both have been employed as key administrative categories in the historical development of social policy and the welfare state. The primary proposition of this research is that these two administrative categories are not merely parallel but also interdependent.

The research programme combined theoretical work with empirical policy research, and collaboration with non-academic partners. Although there is a clear social policy focus, the programme builds on the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies and life course studies. In this way, the complex relationship between disability and generation is located within a broader understanding of changing societies in a global context.

More details are available in the project report. The following activities and outputs are illustrative.

Research Activities

  • Consolidation of previous research on disability and childhood: This involved dissemination and publishing arising from involvement with the ESRC-funded Life as a Disabled Child project. Activities included:
    • a joint seminar on 'disability and childhood' with the (Centre for Research in Primary Care, attended by a range of interested professionals and activists in May 1999.
    • a conference in Leeds in February 2002, bringing together young disabled people and adults who plan or provide services.
    • Input to a project on the health care needs of minority ethnic children in Leeds, funded by the Health Authority and carried out in collaboration with Barnardo's and the Centre for Research in Primary Care.
  • A project to evaluate models for the inclusion of disabled children in local mainstream schools, with co=funding from Education Leeds and employing a full-time researcher (Dr Parvaneh Rabiee). We collected views from staff, pupils, parents, and health professionals about their perceptions of success in inclusion and looked at ways to measure this.
  • A project involving local parents in assessing the need for advocacy services for looked after children who have communciation impairments. This work was commissioned by Save the Children Fund and carried out in collaboration with the Children's Rights Office and Leeds Social Services Department.
  • Advisory group input to a series of projects on the housing needs of disabled children, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
  • An action research project, on good practice with young disabled people leaving care in the Bradford area. This one-year project arose from a collaboration with First Key (the National Leaving Care Advisory Service) and was co-funded by a research grant from the National Lottery Charities Board (award number RB217887). The project employed a full-time researcher (Dr Parvaneh Rabiee) and a part-time clerical support worker (Sheila McMahon).
  • A project focussing on disability, social policy and the social claims of older people, co-funded by a small project grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. The ideas for this project were developed in collaboration with community organisations, local authority staff and the voluntary sector.
  • A journal paper setting out the themes of the Fellowship programme in the context of British social policy. The ideas for this paper were developed from conference presentations. The developed paper, entitled 'Adults Only: disability, social policy and the lifecourse', appeared in the Journal of Social Policy, Vol. 29(3), pp. 421-439. An abridged version was presented to the American Society for Disability Studies in Washington DC, May 1999. Some of the issues were developed as part of our Department of Sociology and Social Policy seminar series (December 1999); in a distinguished scholar lecture at Queen's University Belfast in 2000; an invitational ESRC seminar presentation at the University of Newcastle in 2001; and a plenary speech to the Finnish Network on Disability Research.
  • An international edited collection published in June 2001 by Cambridge University Press, under the title Disability and the Life Course: global perspectives, this is a broad-ranging work, linking disability and generation to ideas about structure, agency and globalisation. An initial call for papers (in May 1999) generated more than 50 responses from 17 different countries. The final selection of 20 chapters includes theoretical and methodological debates, alongside policy issues and personal life history narratives. The analysis locates the lived experience of disability within global contexts of time, place and change.
  • A sole-authored book arising from the themes of the three-year fellowship. Titled Disability: a life course approach, this is targeted primarily at students and teachers of disability studies and published internationally by Polity in 2003.
  • Supervision of a PhD research project by Debby Jolly, using quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate the impact of technology and flexible working on the employment careers of disabled men and women in Britain (co-supervised with Professor Sylvia Walby and funded by an ESRC Studentship award).
  • An international themed edition of the American journal Disability Studies Quarterly, on 'Disability and the Life Course' (Spring 2003).
  • An invitational lecture visit to Central America, centring on a four day taught course for postgraduate students, academics, activists and professionals on the themes of the Fellowship (hosted by the Unviersity of Costa Rica).