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The impact of social and political disability discourses on the experience of physical disability in Portugal

Ema Loja , Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences - University of Porto
Co-author(s): Emília Costa & Isabel Menezes


Disability is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon (Shakespeare, 2007). In worldwide we assist to a widespread and persistent social exclusion and devaluation of disabled people (Shakespeare, 2007).

Predominately analyzed as a medical problem, the issue of disability has been transformed to a political one (Oliver & Zarb, 1997), due to a growth of disabled people's activism in many countries of the world (Meekosha, 2004). Individualist or over-medicalised ways of thinking about disability are strongly challenged by disability studies (Shakespeare, 2007). Improving the quality of life of people with disabilities by altering the stifling physical and social environments (Vash & Crewe, 2004), finding the appropriate way to respond to the politics of difference associated with disability by contesting the interpretations of social difference and the practices of social engagement associated with them (Meekosha, 2004) have been the major concerns.

Disability studies has been closely tied to the nature of the social movements of disabled people in various countries - themselves affected by the social structures and histories of particular societies (Meekosha, 2004).

The international movement has defined its goals around the central issues of empowerment and of collective action of disabled people (Oliver & Zarb, 1997).

Unfortunately, the politicisation of disability has not resulted in the development of a new understanding of the position of disabled people and in a consideration of a pressure group, even in countries which had passed legislation favourable to disabled people (Oliver & Zarb, 1997). According to Oliver and Zarb (1997), the prerequisite for successful action lay in the proper organisation of disabled persons groups, and the development of a high level of public awareness of disability issues. Improving the participation and quality of life of disabled people and developing more adequate understandings of the disability phenomenon are linked and urgent concerns (Shakespeare, 2007).

This study aims to understand the impact of social and political disability' discourses on the experience of difference of people with physical disabilities, namely on their quality of life, participation and community integration, independency, empowerment, and relationships.

Our work uses exploratory interviews with leaders of disability associations in Portugal to explore their views on social and political discourses about disability; their impact on lives of persons with physical disabilities, ableistic practices and attitudes; the responsiveness of organizations regarding the needs of persons with physical disabilities; empowerment, social participation and quality of life of persons with disabilities. These findings will be triangulated with results from a quantitative study with a sample of adults with physical disabilities, using an adapted version of Quality of Life Questionnaire (Schalock & Keith, 1993) that includes the following dimensions: satisfaction, competence/productivity, empowerment/ independence and social belonging/community integration.

Results will expand our understanding of the main challenges faced by people with physical disabilities, exploring the factors that obstruct and promote their empowerment and social participation and integration. We expect that the findings can be relevant for deriving guidelines for future developments in the promotion of integration of people with physical disabilities, in order a more inclusive, pluralist and diverse society.

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