Big Society, Disability and Civil Society Research

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

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Sharing Big Society findings and Community Psychology at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia

Today Rebecca Lawthom represented the Big Society team to present a public seminar at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus. The event, which was widely publicised throughout KL and Malaysia, was attended by over 30 people included academics, practitioners, NGOs (including Malaysia Care), students and members of public. The seminar entitled ‘Using Community Psychology and Disability Studies for Social Justice’ asked can we be humane in humane times? The changing times, whether austerity measures, here in the UK or globalisation more widely entail big changes for the way we think about and do research. In this talk, Rebecca presented the benefit of working with and through others in a collective approach. She drew on her communities of inquiry to help address the questions of human beings and being humane in opposition to locating ‘revolting subjects’. She used ideas of community of practice, community psychology,disability studies, and co-production to explore this. The seminar drew on research around disability and inclusion, migrant workers, and community organising:  How might we collectively think about the communities we work with and live in to secure a future with social justice? In the second part of the seminar, Rebecca presented findings from the Big Society project and concluded with a facilitated discussion around inclusion issues in Malaysia. Rebecca said ‘It was an engaged and stimulating workshop where we shared ideas around circles of support that might work well in a Malaysian context in terms of accessing existing communities of practice. This mirrored and supports discussions and shared ideas that emerged at the event on the 28th March in the University of Malaya – so it was great to see how these early points of connection were picked up on again at the end of this trip’

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Meeting one of Malaysia’s most renowned disability activists

Dan Goodley and Rebecca Lawthom – from the Big Society team – had the pleasure of meeting the internationally renowned disability activist, blogger and journalist Peter Tan in Kuala Lumpur this morning. Peter’s work has been highly influential in documenting the barriers faced by disabled people in Malaysia. An introduction to Peter and his work can be found here from which the following extract is taken:

‘Peter Tan sustained spinal cord injury at the age of 18 when he dived into a swimming pool in 1984. He has been using a wheelchair since.

Faced with physical and attitudinal barriers wherever he went, he became an advocate for an accessible and inclusive Malaysia. He is a prolific writer on disability issues in his blog called The Digital Awakening. He was trained in Malaysia, Japan and Bangkok as a peer counselor for the Independent Living Programme for People with Disabilities. This project is supported by the Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat Malaysia (Department of Social Welfare Malaysia) and Japan International Cooperation Agency to empower severely disabled persons to live independently in the community through self-respect, self-determination and social reformation’.

In our meeting today we discussed the impact of austerity measures on the lives of British disabled people – as revealed by our Big Society project – as well as the current pressures facing disabled people in Malaysia. Disabled people in both countries continue to face real problems in accessing their communities. Peter explained to us inaccessible experiences of public transport and public buildings that occur even in a context of anti-discriminatory legislation. The Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in Malaysia in 2008 (

However, disabled people still struggle for representation in Malaysian civil society. Peter’s work as a Disability Equality Trainer seeks to contest disablist practices through work with public bodies and private organisations. Dan Goodley had this to say about the meeting; ‘After following Peter’s blog for a number of years – and having the chance to correspond via email – it was fantastic to actually get to meet Peter today with Rebecca. His writing captures the importance of combining personal stories with political activism and we look forward to keeping in touching the future’. Rebecca revealed ‘ hearing what life is really like for disabled people as active citizens in Malaysia adds to our picture of inclusion here’.

Peter has recently been a speaker at the first international disability studies conference hosted by the Centre of Excellence for Disability Studies, UNIMAS, Kuching ( with whom members of the Big Society team have also previously collaborated ( .

Peter’s writing can also be accessed through the Borneo Post (for example,

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Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Senator

On Thursday 2nd April, 2015, the team met up with colleagues from Japan International Cooperation Agency ( JICA has been working closely with the Federal Social Welfare Department to develop both self-advocacy, independent living and pathways into employment for disabled people in Malaysia. We had a very informative discussion thinking through approaches to job coaching in Malaysia and in the UK. The team were particularly grateful to Swee Lan Yeo, Consultant at JICA, for her support for our visit to Malaysia. Swee Lan was involved in a earlier project around disability in Malauysia and the UK. One key shared theme that emerged from the meeting was the importance of contextualising employment and self-advocacy in a wider discourse of disability activism and the politics of disability. The growth, for example, of the self-advocacy movement has provided a necessary impetus to rethink how communities respond to the ambitions of people with the label of learning disabilities. This recognition mirrors the findings emerging from the Big Society project which call for a re-emphasis on the politicisation of disability in a time of austerity. The growth of self-advocacy in Malaysia (see earlier post on United Voice) parallels earlier self advocacy movement in UK. Later in the day, we were extremely lucky to meet Bathmavathi Krishnan, Disability activist and Senator, Upper House, Parliament of Malaysia. Her post exists as a direct result of the 2008 act in Malalysia around PWD. We were grateful to the Senator for giving us her insights into the issues facing disabled people in Malaysia and for allowing us to talk to her about the UK context. Dr Katherine Runswick-Cole, Senior Research Fellow in Disability Studies & Psychology, from Manchester Metropolitan University said: “we have had a fantastic opportunity to share our ideas with our Malaysian colleagues and it has been great to have the opportunity to reflect, as a team, on our research. It has been fascinating to see the overlaps between the Malaysian and UK context and to share ideas about moving forward and working through the opportunities and challenges people with learning disabilities face in relation to employment in both countries.” IMG_2765

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United Voice & Gamuda

On Wednesday 1st April, 2015 the team travelled to Petaling Jaya to spend the morning with United Voice (UV), the Malaysian Self-Advocacy Organisation. This was an exciting visit for the team, not least because Dan Goodley and United Voice are old friends. Dan first visited UV in 2006 where he was keynote speaker at the 1st National Seminar on Self-Advocacy for Persons with Learning Disabilities in Malaysia (   Johari Jamali, a former president of UV, and current secretary, recently described Dan as the group’s ‘guru’ and reflected on the impact Dan’s visit to UV had back in 2006. Since 2006 United Voice has grown as an organisation with self-advocacy groups  meeting all over Malaysia. We met United Voice in the building that they now own in Petaling Jaya where members told us more about the growth of advocacy work in Malaysia since 2006. The building is home to a workshop, art gallery, meeting rooms and a shop selling products made by members of UV. If you want to learn more about United Voice or to support their work visit:


In the afternoon, we were delighted to be able to meet with the team at Gamuda Engineering and Construction ( Gamuda told us about their work with people with learning disabilities and their innovative approach to supporting people into employment. We were particularly grateful to The Group Managing Director who met up with us – Dato’ Lin Yun Ling – and gave up his time to meet us. We met with some of the disabled young people working at Gamuda in a variety of roles in their offices in Kuala Lumpur. We shared good practice stories around supported employment and self-employment being developed by Keith Bates and the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities that have been documented in our Big Society research findings. The team were supported by Yeo Swee Lan who has helped to lead job coaching initiatives in Malaysia.

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Meetings at the Ministries, 31st March, 2015

On Tuesday 31st March, 2015, the team travelled to the Ministry of Human Resources, the Labour Department, Peninsular Malaysia. We were welcomed to the department by Dr Wan Amidawati binti Wan Abdullah before meeting with Mohd Jeffrey Bin Joakim, Director General of Labour to talk about employment for people with learning disabilities in Malaysia.

Professsor Dan Goodley said: “We were thrilled to have the opportunity to share our research findings with the Ministry and to learn about the innovative work here in Malaysia.

In the afternoon, we travelled to the Department of Special Education where we were greeted by Dr Noraini Zainal Abidin. This was an opportunity for the team to talk about the recent changes in transition planning for young people with learning disabilities into work in the UK and to learn about developing plans in Malaysia.

Keith Bates, Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, said: “It was great to be able to share the resources from the Foundation’s “When I grow up programme” ( with teachers in Malaysia. I’m looking forward to further conversations with them in the future.”