Current Issues in Disability Research

By Karen Young

A workshop for PhD students involved in disability research was held in the Gilchrist Postgraduate club on Friday 15th May. The event was instigated and organised by a small group of PhD students who are undertaking disability research within the College of Social Science and was funded by the New Initiatives fund.

We were keen to get together with other PhD students to think about some of the particular challenges which we face in our research and to share different disciplinary perspectives, but we also felt that this shouldn’t be just an ‘academic’ event and that it was important to involve Disabled People’s Organisations in the discussion. Some of the issues which we hoped to discuss were:

  • How can we ensure our research includes difficult to reach groups and marginalised voices?
  • How do we understand ‘impact’? How can we make our research meaningful outwith academia?
  • Can PhD research be ‘participatory’? How can we reconcile the disability movement objective of ‘nothing about us without us’ with the academic requirements of the PhD?
  • How do we position ourselves in our research? What might be the impact of being an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ and when is it appropriate to reveal or conceal our personal position?

We were keen to ensure that the event was interactive and informal; a conversation, rather than a lecture, so we scheduled short presentations followed by questions and discussion. In keeping with our commitment to and understandings of Disability Studies and the disability movement objective of ‘nothing about us without us’, we also invited several activists and members of the disabled people’s movement to be in the audience and join the discussion.

During the morning session, some of the practical and theoretical issues in undertaking disability research were presented by academic speakers and discussed by the group. Dr Phillippa Wiseman (University of Glasgow) presented some of her own research involving young disabled people and ideas about community and citizenship, Prof Bill Hughes (Glasgow Caledonian University) discussed embodiment and the legitimisation of violence against disabled people, and Prof Nick Watson (University of Glasgow) spoke about the Personalisation agenda and the dismantling of state support.

In the afternoon session, we heard from third sector organisations and considered important issues relating to research impact & dissemination outwith academia. Tressa Burke (Glasgow Disability Alliance) spoke about participatory action research, presenting findings from GDA’s ‘My Choices’ project, Lisa Curtice (The Alliance) considered some of the challenges in participatory research, and Bill Scott (Inclusion Scotland) discussed the importance of research in achieving social change.

Throughout the various discussions in the course of the day, a key theme emerged in relation to austerity and the disproportionate impact for disabled people. However, the key message was encouraging and suggested opportunities for academics and disabled people’s organisations to work together, combining research and practice, in order to challenge the existing system and address inequality and discrimination.

The workshop provided the opportunity for researchers and organisations to get together, establish relationships and begin discussions about collaboration and identifying opportunities for future research. As PhD students involved in disability research, we feel that our critical engagement in our own research projects has developed as a result of the discussions and connections made at the workshop and are now planning to meet up regularly to share ideas and discuss our research.

Some comments from evaluation forms:

‘Hearing from non-academic actors helps to see a life beyond academia reaffirming that what we, as PhD students, do has real world application’

‘Made me think of important issues I had not thought of before’

‘Hadn’t before considered sharing my research with other areas, but will now’

‘Great to be at an event for both academics and activists’

‘Lots of ideas for my own research’

‘Discussion after session 2 was fantastic, it felt very inclusive and with excellent take home message’



Karen Young is a second year PhD student in Sociology at the University of Glasgow.  She is currently researching the experiences of people with learning disabilities and their families in Glasgow, in relation to recent changes to social care policy and service provision. Karen’s research interests include; disability, health and wellbeing, care, gender, and families and relationships. You can contact Karen by email at