Disabled children, ethnography and unspoken understandings

Davis, J., Watson, N. and Cuningham Burley, S. (2017) Disabled children, ethnography and unspoken understandings. In: Christensen, P. and James, A. (eds.) Research with Children Perspectives and Practices. Routledge: Abingdon. ISBN 9781315657349 (doi:10.4324/9781315657349)

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This chapter was first developed from the Life As A Disabled Child project which was part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Research Programme: Children 5-16 Growing Into The 21st Century Program. The project was carried out at the universities of Edinburgh and Leeds and this chapter discusses the experiences of the Edinburgh team in relation to research carried out in a special school for children with multiple impairments. By describing the gradual process through which disabled children enabled us to construct a complex understanding of their lives and identities, the chapter provides a practical illustration of how ideas concerning ethnographic, reflexive and emancipatory research influence research with disabled children. The chapter analyses the variety of research roles the ethnographer employed to learn the children’s (verbal and non-verbal) languages, and the process through which the research team questioned their own and other academic understandings of childhood and disability. In so doing, the chapter demonstrates three key points: that ethnography can help us to gain access to the meanings of ‘non-verbal’ research participants; that reflexivity enables us to uncover the diverse identities of disabled children; and that there are tensions concerning power and ethics when employing ideas from emancipatory research Prior to our study in the late 1990s, writers in disability studies argued that images of disabled children were preoccupied with issues of care and involved narratives of dependence, vulnerability and exclusion (Watson and Shakespeare 1998, Priestley 1998). Such studies were criticised for tending to represent disabled children as a homogenous grouping, overemphasising the structural context of childhood disability (e.g. the link between disability and poverty) and only rarely discussing identity issues such as race and gender (Humphries and Gordon 1992, Lewis 1995, Middleton 1996, Norwich 1997, Priestley 1998). The ‘Life As A Disabled Child’ project encountered similar attitudes; for example, most professionals we encountered possessed a taken for granted perspective that disabled children would be unable to make choices and that they would require adults to make choices for them (Davis and Watson 2001, 2002). In contrast, the ‘Life As A Disabled Child’ project sought to investigate children’s views and was set up from a children’s and disability rights perspective.

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Watson, Professor Nicholas
Authors: Davis, J., Watson, N., and Cuningham Burley, S.
Subjects:H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences
College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Health and Wellbeing > General Practice and Primary Care

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