In the past the criminological ‘mainstream’ has failed adequately to differentiate criminals. Despite recent so-called critical perspectives, inconveniencing ‘a criminology imbued with male, adult, mentally healthy, formerly non-victimized values’ (Peay, 2007: 501), few scholars take intersectional approaches. Moreover, even within intersectional approaches, disability is too often considered as an afterthought or not considered at all (Sokoloff & Dupont 2005; De Coster & Heimer, 2006). Referencing to research on offenders with mental health problems and learning disabilities, Baldry et al argue that the way forward, both for criminological theory and Criminal Justice practice, therefore requires these groups to be moved ‘from a categorical or diagnostic attribute to a central location in the conceptualisation of the individual who presents to the CJS’ (2008: 42). Broadening the purview of our discipline, and academia more generally, is not just about substantive research; it’s about increasing opportunities for researchers with disabilities because of the intrinsic value of reflexivity in research and the role of participatory action.
As I have discussed elsewhere an intellectual interest about the way disability intersects with academia led me and other Wadham students to establish the Let’s Get Disability on the List! Campaign. Our Campaign began by asking faculties and Colleges to look at their reading lists and taught course syllabi and audit where disability is included. The Centre for Criminology and Faculty of Law were the first University departments to undertake such audits. As many members of the Campaign are graduate law students, we wanted to showcase the intellectually interesting ways in which disability issues intersect with domestic and international law. Consequently, we worked with the Faculty of Law and the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to establish the Herbert Smith Freehills Oxford Disability Mooting Championship. The Faculty’s first Moot Court competition focus solely on legal issues affecting persons with a disability, the inaugural Championship examined tort law and civil justice issues relating to damages for disabled claimants.Dupont notes, ‘[g]iven the fact that so much criminal justice research focuses on some of society’s most disenfranchised groups … there should be more dialogue in our profession about ethics related to the study of marginalized individuals and communities’ (2008: 201). Working previously with adults with autism, to facilitate their engagement in and contribution to changes in legislation, has made me alert to the importance of participatory action and the role of reflexivity in research. Participatory research embodies ‘the idea that research can, and should, be empowering and directly useful to research participants’ but has been ‘limited to the margins of a few social science disciplines’ (ibid). In my own research, I have also become aware of the role my disability plays in informing my methodological and theoretical approaches; it has persuaded me of the positive role of reflexivity in research and ‘its capacity to acknowledge researchers as active participants whose identities, like those of research subjects, may be variously shaped by powerful hierarchies of race/ethnicity, gender and class’ (Phillips and Earle 2010: 362). Such dynamics have an emancipatory and creative role; driving research forward, influencing ‘the questions we ask, the ones we don’t, who we interview and who we don’t, how we interview, how we listen and how we don’t, and ultimately how we understand (ibid; c.f Hertz 1997).
It was the co-companions of participatory action and role of reflexivity that inspired our next Campaign project – to increase access to post-graduate studies for students with disabilities. Undergraduate students often use holiday time to have surgery, treatments and medical appointments which they do not have time for during term time. They may take longer to complete their studies and have to use more of their vacation in order to do this. Thus students with disabilities may be unable to do paid holiday work to earn money to fund post-graduate studies. I know this from first-hand experience – I had major surgery the term after I completed my undergraduate degree, after which I had to take a year out to recover, and had to secure a career development loan to pay for my MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice. That was in 2007-8, before austerity measures resulted in the sort of cumulative impact of cuts to services which, most likely, will only serve to augment the barriers which could further hinder opportunities for bright, disabled students to progress into higher education.Yesterday, Wadham announced the launch of our new scholarship to fund academically excellent Masters’ students with a disability. I hope this will be a small but significant step in helping better participation in and access to post-graduate research for academics with disabilities. A generous £75,000 donation has been made to establish the Oxford Wadham Graduate Scholarship for Disabled Students. It will cover 100% of University and college fees at the UK/EU rate and a grant for living costs (at least £13,863) for the duration of the course. Applicants for the BCL and MSc in Criminology 2015/16 entry are eligible to apply.
The development of a more clearly-conceived disability perspective is vital because the absence of such a perspective leads to theoretical blindspots, and - to the extent that criminology can affect criminal justice policy (Garland&Sparks 2000; Loader 1998; 2006) - to discriminatory practice. Foregrounding disability in academia - formerly perceived of as a minority discourse - does not only involve expanding academic enquiry. It involves improving access to post-graduate education for students with disabilities.