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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Disability, Austerity & Cruel Optimism

New article here:

Disability, Austerity and Cruel Optimism in Big Society: Resistance and “The Disability Commons”

Katherine Runswick-Cole, Daniel Goodley

Disability, Austerity and Cruel Optimism in Big Society: Resistance and “The Disability Commons”

Katherine Runswick-Cole, Daniel Goodley


This paper draws on Berlant’s (2011) concept of “‘cruel optimism”’ as it manifests itself in the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities living in England in a time of Big Society. We argue that Big Society offers a cluster of promises to disabled people with learning disabilities: citizenship, empowerment, community, social action and a route out of (or protection from) poverty. However, we suggest that these promises have been repeatedly offered and repeatedly denied and remain tantalizingly out of reach. While drawing attention to the injustices disabled people with learning disabilities face in Big Society, we also attend to the ways in which they are working the spaces of neoliberalism in order to resist “‘their designation as disposable bodies”’ (Tyler 2013: 224).


Disability; Austerity; Cruel Optimism; Big Society

“‘their designation as disposable bodies”’ (Tyler 2013: 224).


Disability; Austerity; Cruel Optimism; Big Society

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BigSocietyDis at the Society for Disability Studies, Atlanta, Georgia, 10-13 June

Dan Goodley and Katherine Runswick Cole gave a paper at this major international disability conference held annually in the states. Their paper was part of a panel, moderated by Mel Chen, entitled “Beyond ‘Human rights’ and ‘the Human’: Disability, (post)human and DisHuman Studies and Intimate Citizenship”. There were three papers in the panel:

Dan Goodley and Katherine Runswick Cole, “Becoming Dis/human: Thinking about the Human through Disability”
Kirsty Liddiard, “‘I’m a lie-back-and-think-of-England type of man’: Imagining the Posthuman Dis/sexual Subject”
Esther Ignagni, “Failing Domesticity: Towards Dis/parenthood”

Dan said ‘SDS is an established American conference that brings together activists, academics and artists to engage with disability issues. It was a great opportunity to work alongside Kirsty and Esther to explore the ways in which disability troubles but also desires the human – as a category and organising principle around which to consider the rights of disabled people. We had a full house for our panel and were able to share our emerging work in – which has extended out of our work on the BigSocietyDis project and allowed us to work with Kirsty and Esther on shared themes of self-advocacy, intimate citizenship and community & family activism’.

More details of this work can be found

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BigSocietyDis hits Finland

Dan Goodley represented the BigSocietyDis team at an international symposium held at the University of Helsinki between the 4th and 5th June 2015. This event was organised by AGORA (for the study of Social Justice & Equality in education research centre, University of Helsinki) and Critical Educational Psychology Centre for the Human CEPCH (University of Sheffield).

The two event entitled ‘A global epidemic of mental ill-health? Interdisciplinary perspectives on the educational implications of reconfiguring social, economic and human crises’ brought together researchers from the Universities of Helsinki and Sheffield. Dan joined University of Sheffield colleagues – China Mills, Lisa Procter and Kathryn Ecclestone – to speak around the topics of psychologisation, disability and debility. Dan’s paper entitled ‘PRECARIOUS BODIES: THE BIOPOLITICS OF DIS/ABILITY AND DEBILITY’ considered the ways in which the politics of austerity are promoting alliances between disabled people and others ‘debilitated’ by the dance of capital and the rolling back of the welfare state.

Drawing on theories from Jasbir Puar and Lauren Berlant – as well as some recent writing in his 2014 book Dis/ability studies (Routledge) – Dan was also encouraged to think about the ways in which our BigSocietyDis partners are responding in imaginative ways to the politics of austerity. Dan said, ‘This was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues in AGORA and share our findings from our project. Too often, considerations of social, economic and human crises forget to engage with disability organisations. Our BigSocietyDis research has shown us that disability organisations lead the way in reacting to the recent austerity measures in the UK and elsewhere in the world. While disabled people risk being made ever more economically and politically vulnerable by capitalist crises, our BigSocietyDis partner organisations have alerted us to a host of imaginative practices that seek to maintain the community networks of support for people with intellectual disabilities. One way of understanding this is that disabled activists and trade unions have much in common in terms of responding to politics a ideology. The event was also a supportive space to connect with researchers at AGORA whose own work is thinking through some of these crises and pressures and we thank Kristiina Brunila and her colleagues at AGORA for the debates and discussions’.

Some photos from the event:

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 14.10.46 Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 14.10.12 Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 14.07.53 Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 14.07.45

A link to AGORA’s website:

A link to a review by Imogen Tyler of Dan’s book – Dis/ability Studies (Routledge, 2014)

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Blackmarket for Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, Basel, Switzerland 6th June, 2015


On Saturday 6th June, 2015, Dr Katherine Runswick-Cole, Senior Research Fellow in Disability Studies & Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University travelled to Basel, Switzerland to take part in the Blackmarket for Knowledge and Non-Knowledge event as part of the Wurld Wurchs Festival


The event in Basel is part of a series of Blackmarket events that have taken place all of the world At the Blackmarket around twenty ‘experts’ are invited to share their ideas with a member of the public. At the sound of the gong, ‘experts’ and members of the public begin their thirty- minute conversation across the table while the wider audience, of about one hundred members, tune in to their chose conversation on their headsets.


Each Blackmarket event follows a different theme, in Basel the conversations were broadly located in the area of the Para Human and many of the ‘experts’ (disabled people, family members, activist and academics) were talking about their ideas in relation to disability.


Katherine spoke about some of the ideas that she and colleagues have been developing at part of their ongoing project “Big Society? Disabled people with learning disabilities and civil society” ( She talked about what it means to be human by thinking the human alongside dis/ability; she explored the ways in which dis/ability can disrupt, re-shape and enlarge narrow concepts of ‘the human’ in radical ways.

Katherine said: “this was a fantastic opportunity to be part of an event which offers an innovative approach to knowledge exchange. Each conversation was different but each conversation offered a chance to think through the ideas we have been developing as part of the research.”


If you are interested in learning more about the ideas Katherine was talking about, you can read:

Goodley, D. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2014) Big Society? Disabled people with the label of learning disabilities and the queer(y)ing of civil society, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research. DOI:10.1080/15017419.2014.941924

Goodley, D. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2014) Becoming dis/human: Thinking about the human through disability, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2014.930021

Or watch: