With three days to go until I swim (!) 5 kilometres for Mind, friends and colleagues asked me: what will motivate me on the day? The short answer is that advocating for the need for better mental health awareness and services has been integral to my personal and professional life for a long time. As my shoulders are aching, I will be hoping that all my emails, Facebook and Twitter posts about this venture will have stimulated an aspiration for readers to augment their awareness of the attendant practical, social and legal considerations that arise when an individual has a mental health problem.

The longer answer, however, begins with my own research. On Monday 30 July I spoke at the Centre for Criminology’s Thames Valley Police Seminar series about the centrality of the intersection between disability and the criminal justice system. Baldry et al highlighted the lacuna in Critical Criminology which, while taking account of race, gender and class, currently relegates disability ‘to the status of an additional dimension of social disadvantage’ (2008: 32). Their work aimed to move thinking beyond traditionally siloed disciplinary approaches and consequently combined insights emerging from Critical Criminology with innovations from the discipline of Critical Disability Studies (CDS) (2008: 31) – most notably the ‘social model of disability’. This model makes a distinction between impairment, a condition of the mind or body, and disablement - a form of disadvantage or restriction of activity, caused by the failure to take account of impairment. Such failure leads to barriers to participation in mainstream social activities being imposed on top of impairment (UPIAS 1976, in Oliver 1976:22).

Criminological theory and criminal justice practice have often sought to categorise offenders with mental health problems (MHP) through the reductive binary of ‘mad’ or ‘bad’, perpetuating a crude and ‘false dichotomy’ (Seddon, 2008). Building on the work of Baldry et al (2008, 2009) I consider the descriptive and normative value of considering these groups as ‘disabled’ under the ‘social model’ of ‘disability’. My doctoral project is about the Governance of adult offenders with autism in England: criminal justice policy and criminal court practice. I ask:

  • At what points in the court process does the defendant’s autism become relevant to decision-making and how does this consideration affect case disposal?
  • When does the identification of the offender’s autism trigger a consideration of their status as individuals with a disability under the Equality Act 2010?

Research which brings individuals with autism more sharply into focus, within the discipline of Criminology, is especially relevant given new developments in the wider legal and policy context. The Bradley Report five years on (Durcan et al, 2014) was published only two weeks ago and the last year has seen the publication of a number of important reviews and strategies – the Adebowale Report (2013), the recent ‘refreshed’ Autism Strategy Think Autism (DH, 2014) and (2014) and the Mental Health Crisis Care Concordat  (DH, 2014) - to name just a few.

Distinguishing between impairment and disablement, I argue in relation to my own research, the social model is helpful in enabling us to comprehend, on the one hand, the ‘psy’ literature which explores the link between the ‘symptomatology’ (Freckleton and List, 2009) of autism and criminality (the ‘impairment branch’ of the distinction) in combination with the ‘interconnecting variables’ (Browning and Caulfield, 2011) leading offenders with autism into the CJS and inequitable experiences of offenders with autism on the other (the ‘disablement branch’ of the distinction). Such an intellectual venture is timely given the entrenchment of this model in the Equality Act 2010 and the inception of the Autism Act 2009, Autism Statutory Guidance (DH, 2010) and related policy.

Examining the way disability intersects with academia has become my intellectual itch; my own research is just the beginning. Earlier this year Wadham students and I established the Let’s Get Disability on the List! Campaign. This campaign asks the University of Oxford’s faculties and Colleges to audit where disability is included in their reading lists and taught course syllabi. The Centre for Criminology was one of the first University departments to reassert the importance of recognizing the ways in which disability is relevant to criminal justice issues when constructing and teaching courses.

The University has over 1,000 students with a declared disability, raising disability awareness is not just about improving access to University services; it involves promoting the research the University is already undertaking in this area and using its intellectual resources to consider, teach  and discuss the myriad of intersecting issues relating to disability.

My motivation for the 5km swim is part of an academic journey to foreground this minority discourse[1]it is this which will inspire me to complete 200th lap on Saturday. In my own field, utilizing the kinds of ‘intellectual resources’ available in Critical Disability Studies and recent legislation to develop modes of theorizing and forms of empirical enquiry to assist Criminology in coming ‘to terms with the social and legal worlds that it aspires to comprehend and in which it intends to intervene’ (Garland&Sparks, 2000:2-3).

Marie is swimming 5k for Mind this Saturday 5th July https://www.justgiving.com/Marie-Tidball/

[1] Yet this a discourse which is relevant to a considerable number of our citizens. The Office For Disability Issues Report that there are 11.6 million people with a disability in Great Britain.