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Searching for the absent citizen: Enabling & (dis)abling discourses of social citizenship

Sarah Parker, Department of Sociology and Social Policy, The University of Sydney

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Contemporary discourses of citizenship are highly contested with debates operating around a series of binary oppositions. Traditional theories of citizenship have proved insufficient in what can termed a 'post-welfare' western society. No longer do Marshallian notions of a universality of rights created in and for post-war structures measure up. While new philosophies are emerging to fill the spaces absently created by the hegemonic (male) discourses, there remains discontent. This is evident particularly amongst those people who continue to be absent from even the most radical of citizenship debates, such as people with disabilities. Dominant theories of liberal citizenship highlight individualism and rights. Civic republicanism and communitarianism stress obligations, participation and community. All are pervasive in retaining a dichotomous foundation - one to which a disabled person does not easily mould. The first part of this paper will delineate these theories and their silence on disability, seeking to ascertain if the rights/participation ideologies can in fact be useful for a person with a disability. Both the rights and participation approach to citizenship have been heavily critiqued by feminists as historically the 'citizen' has been constructed in the image of a male. As Lister (2003:68) rightly states, 'the universalist cloak of the abstract, disembodied individual had been cast aside to reveal a definitely male citizen and a white, heterosexual, non-disabled one at that'. Whilst feminist theories have enabled spaces within citizenship debates to be inclusive of embodied individuals, they too commit the fallacy of predominantly referring to an able-bodied citizen. The second part of this paper will examine key feminist theories of citizenship asking the question, can current (able) embodied citizenship theory include the (dis)abled body? Concepts in both traditional and radical citizenship theory have predominantly revolved around contestation of rights/obligations, active/passive citizenship, inclusion/exclusion and private/public. In closing, this paper will explore these concepts highlighting how the term 'disabled citizen' becomes an oxymoron within these dichotomies. The key debates which have been set out above will be brought together to answer the question, can an inclusive theory of social citizenship make visible the absent (disabled) citizen?

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