Big Society, Disability and Civil Society Research

Website for ESRC research project 'Big Society? Disabled People with Learning Disabilities and Civil Society'

Thinking about the human; thinking about disability

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In this post, we think about what it means to be human.  It might seem that there is a bit of a leap from a project on ‘Big Society’ to thinking about what it means to be human, but we think that understanding what it means to be human matters if we want to understand what is happening in the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities in Big Society. Sometimes, we’ve been criticized by those who think that asking things like “what does it means to be human?” is a waste of time, that we are simply doing theory for theory’s sake.  Of course, we don’t agree with this view, indeed we would argue that our interest in thinking about the human is political; it is based on our personal commitment to a politics of disability and because of our own positions as family, friends and allies to people with the label of learning disability.

We’re by no means the first writers to think about the human.  Tanya Titchkosky has already observed that:

[c]ritical projects such as feminist research, gender and queer theory, and cultural and critical race studies share an interest in questioning how certain people are regarded as on the edge of all that counts as human. Disability studies shares this interest as well; it explores how disabled people figure on the edge of the ordinary orders of daily life, including education, work, leisure, and love, and it studies how such exclusion is normalized (Titchkosky, 2012: 82).

We recognise a tradition of academic argument in which the presence of disability, no matter how we define it, does some profound things to our thinking about the human (Kittay and Carlson, 2010). The human is a concern for thinkers inside and outside disability studies, for instance, the feminist philosopher, Rosi Braidotti (2013) has become so disenchanted with the ‘human norm that stands for normality, normalcy and normativity’ (p. 26) that she describes herself as an ‘anti-humanist’ (p. 16) calling for a rejection of the restricted Eurocentric notion of the human in favour of the posthuman, thinking beyond ideas of the human to consider new ways of building and sustaining communities.

Thinking about the dis/human

We acknowledge the ways in which the narrow version of the human that Bradotti (2013) describes push some lives to the edge of human.  Like Braidotti (2013), we want to question the kinds of human currently valued in society; especially in relation to disability. But our political commitment to the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities means that, as well as criticizing narrow concepts of the human, we also want to claim the human in the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities – following our colleagues in the self-advocacy movement, we agree that people with learning disabilities are ‘People First’. So, we find ourselves in a difficult position; we want to embrace the human but at the same time, we want to be very critical of it.  In a paper (Goodley and Runswick-Cole, under review) we describe this contradictory position as ‘dis/human’:

We describe this reality as a dis/human one which, we contend, simultaneously acknowledges the possibilities offered by disability to trouble, re-shape and re-fashion the human (to ‘dis’ typical understandings of personhood) while simultaneously asserting disabled people’s humanity (to assert normative understandings of personhood).

Disabled people with learning disabilities tell us that claiming the human while simultaneously seeking to trouble, to reshape and revise it, is part of their every day lives. In advocacy organizations, we hear people say: “I have the same rights to a job, a home and a family because I am the same as you, but to treat me equally, you have to treat me differently”. This, we would argue, is the dis/human position.

We also know that the policy struggles to recognize these tensions and to understand the dis/human. Policy, it seems, is always on the side of the human, never on the side of the dis; policy documents imagine the human as a bounded, rational, independent individual self.  Since Valuing People (DoH, 2001) we have seen a focus on individualized plans to enable individual disabled people with learning disabilities to become active and contributing members of their community. There is a danger that such approaches, while emphasising the human, pay too little attention to the dis.

In our study so far, we have come across a number of examples of the dishuman paradox, we are sure there are more:

Figure 1. Dis/ability studies: Becoming dis/human and other possibilities


Dis/ability studies


























We must not lose sight of the normal desires disabled people with learning disabilities: living in families, having a home and job; having choice and control, being seen as an adult and full citizen.  All too often, these very ordinary aspirations are denied to disabled people with learning disabilities.  So for us, thinking about the human always means thinking about this thing we call disability – if we exclude disabled people with learning disabilities from conversations about the human then we are not really thinking about the human at all.


Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman, Cambridge: The Polity Press.

Goodley, D. and Runswick-Cole, K. under review. Becoming dis/human:  Thinking about the human through disability, Disability & Society.

Titchkosky, T. 2012. “The Ends of the Body as Pedagogic Possibility.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 34 (3-4): 82-93. doi: 10.1080/10714413.2012.686851



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