Disability and society (B.A. level course)

Syllabus for a summer course within the Sciences PO – UBC B.A. Dual Degree Program – Summer 2016.

General description and aims of the course

Disability as a social fact levels questions at the core of sociological thinking, such as norms and deviance, social status and inequalities. This is all the more true since the social status of persons with disabilities has undergone fundamental changes in the past century, following a process similar to other social minorities such as women, sexual and racial minorities. From the compensation of injured war veterans to de-institutionalization and more recently antidiscrimination, collective mobilizations and public policies have promoted, reflected and accompanied these social transformations. Hence this course, while mainly based on sociological works, will also draw on political science, history and socio-legal scholarship.

Its main aim is to introduce students to the key concepts and empirical results of the sociology of disability. Systematic attention will be paid to the connections of this sub-field of sociology to the broader concepts and ways of thinking of the discipline. Disability will be used as a starting point to train students’ sociological eye and increase their sociological imagination, in the continuity of the 1st year “introduction to sociology” course. Beyond scholarly purposes, such a course aims at giving citizens with or without disabilities tools in order to promote better inclusion in the academic, professional and civic spheres as well as in other areas of life. Students interested in public policy, law and governance will also learn useful ways of thinking about disability in the context of the dynamic of disability mainstreaming.

Learning objectives

 By the end of this course, students should be able to:

– Understand and explain the differences between the medical, social and relational models of disability;

– Identify disabling barriers in education, employment, access to the built environment;

– Know the main features of disability policies and the disability rights movement in the Western world;

– Critically analyze representations of disability in the mass media;

– Apply core sociological reasoning to a new theme, notably in terms of:

  • The social construction of categories
  • Social inequality and intersectionality
  • Deviance and social control

– Combine the inputs of different disciplines (sociology, political science, history, law, economics) in order to make sense of disability as a social and historical construct;

– Reflect critically on the interplay between policy, politics and the production of knowledge.


Because the rise of disability studies as an interdisciplinary field of inquiry is tightly linked to the disability movement and the changing politics and policies regarding disability, the course begins with exploring this political history which set the stage for further knowledge development. The first section of the course presents and discusses the history of the disability movement. We stress the distinctions between the US movement’s civil rights orientation and the UK movement’s focus on disability as social oppression. Section 2 presents the general evolution of disability policy as well as its country-specific variations, from veterans’ benefits to global disability rights. This analysis of the changing political categories used to tackle disability paves the way to the more in-depth discussion of models of disability in sections 3-5. Section 3 is devoted to the analysis of the shift from a medical to a social model of disability, which represents the major paradigm shift introduced by disability studies. We explore the way this paradigm shift echoes broader sociological questions regarding deviance, social control and social inequality. Section 4 addresses some of the critiques addressed to the social model, which are an occasion to connect disability debates to classical issues regarding social constructionism and the role of embodiment in the social sciences. Section 5 views disability in an intersectional perspective, stressing how the social constructions and experiences of disability are not only differentiated but also infused by gender, class and race. Based on the resources provided in this first half of the course, students are expected to be able to deploy a critical analysis of contemporary western cultural representations of disability: section 6 is organized around the collective presentation and discussion of media images and scripts selected by the students. Sessions 7 to 9 then explore three aspects of the social experience of disability: care work (seen not only from the point of view of caring for disabled people, but also analyzing the experience of disabled people as care providers, and notably disabled parents), education, and employment.


  1. Where it all began: The disability movement
  2. Disability policy at the crossroads
  3. From stairs to stratification: The social production of disability
  4. Bringing impairment back in: The social model and its critiques
  5. From disability to disabilities
  6. Cultural representations of disability
  7. Education
  8. Disability and care
  9. Employment


Pre-course required readings

Shah, S., & Priestley, M. (2011), « Telling stories », p. 23-45 in Disability and social change. Private lives and public policies. Bristol: Policy Press.

Oliver, M., & Barnes, C. (2012), « The importance of definitions in the disability debate », p.11-31 in The new politics of disablement. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shakespeare, T. (2013), « Materialist approaches to disability », p. 11-47 in Disability rights and wrongs revisited. London: Routledge.

Heyer, K. (2015), « The disability revolution : from welfare to rights », p.15-50 in Rights enabled: the disability revolution, from the US, to Germany and Japan, to the United Nations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Malacrida, C. (2007). « Negotiating the Dependency/Nurturance Tightrope: Dilemmas of Motherhood and Disability ». Canadian Review of Sociology, 44(4), 469–493.

Related reading assignment

List of topics for group presentations

  • Disability and sports
  • Disability and development
  • Disability and eugenics
  • Disability arts and culture
  • Disability and elections

Main references

Albrecht, Gary, Katherine Seelman, and Michael Bury, eds. 2001. Handbook of Disability Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Barnes, Colin, Mike Oliver, and Len Barton, eds. 2002. Disability Studies Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Barnes, Colin, and Geof Mercer. 2010. Exploring Disability. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Shakespeare, Tom. 2013. Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited. London: Routledge.

Swain, John, Sally French, Colin Barnes, and Carol Thomas, eds. 2013. Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments. London: Sage.

Watson, Nick, Alan Roulstone, and Carol Thomas, eds. 2012. Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies. New York: Routledge.

Further references

Abberley Paul, 1987, « The concept of oppression and the development of a social theory of disability », Disability, handicap and society, 2, 1, p. 5-19.

Barnartt Sharon and Scotch Richard K., 2001, Disability Protests. Contentious Politics, 1970-1999, Washington, DC, Gallaudet University Press.

Barnes Colin, 2005, The social model of disability: Europe and the majority world, Leeds, Disability Press.

Barnes C, ‘Disability, higher education and the inclusive society’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28.1 (2007), 135-145

Barnes C, ‘Re-thinking disability, work and welfare’, Sociology Compass, 6.6 (2012), 458-471

Barral Catherine, 2007, “Disabled Persons’ Associations in France.” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, vol. 9, n° 3-4, p. 214–236.

Borsay Anne, 2005, Disability and social policy in Britain since 1750, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Carey A.C., 2009, On the margins of citizenship. Intellectual disability and civil rights in twentieth-century America, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

DeJong G., 1979, « Independent Living: from social movement to analytic paradigm », Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 60, p. 435‑446.

Engel D., Munger F.W., 2001, « Re-Interpreting the Effects of Rights: Career Narratives and the ADA », Ohio State Law Journal, 285, p. 285‑333.

Engel David M and Munger Frank W, 2003, Rights of inclusion. Law and identity in the life stories of Americans with disabilities, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Fleischer Doris Z and Zames Frieda, 2011, The disability rights movement: From charity to confrontation, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Finkelstein Victor, 1980, Attitudes and disabled people: issues for discussion, New York, World Rehabilitation Fund.

Fougeyrollas, Patrick, and Line Beauregard. 2001. “Disability: An Interactive Person-Environment Social Creation.” Pp. 171–94 in Handbook of disability studies, edited by Gary Albrecht, Katherine Seelman, and Michael Bury. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Garland-Thomson R., 1996, Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body, New York, New York University Press.

Garland-Thomson R., 2005, « Feminist disability studies », Signs, 30, 2, p. 1557‑1587.

Goffman Erving, 1963, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Gustavsson Anders, 2004, « The role of theory in disability research: springboard or strait-jacket? », Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 6, 1, p. 55‑70.

Harpur Paul, 2012, “Embracing the new disability rights paradigm: the importance of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Disability & Society, vol. 27, n° 1, p. 1–14.

Heyer, Katharina C (2015). Rights enabled: the disability revolution, from the US, to Germany and Japan, to the United Nations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kelemen R Daniel and Vanhala Lisa, 2010, “The Shift to the Rights Model of Disability in the EU and Canada.” Regional and Federal Studies, vol. 20, n° 1, p. 1–18.

Kittay, E. (2011). The Ethics of Care, Dependence, and Disability. Ratio Juris, 24(1), 49–58.

McLaughlin, J. (2006). Conceptualising Intensive Caring Activities: the Changing Lives of Families with Young Disabled Children. Sociological Research Online, 11(1).

Morris J., 1993, « Feminism and disability », Feminist Review, 43, p. 57‑70.

O’Brien, R. (2001). Crippled justice. The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oliver Michael, 1996, Disability politics: Understanding our past, changing our future, London, Routledge.

Oliver, M., & Barnes, C. (2012). The new politics of disablement. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peters S. J., 2007, “‘Education for All?’: A Historical Analysis of International Inclusive Education Policy and Individuals With Disabilities,.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies, vol. 18, n° 2, p. 98–108.

Priestley, M. (2003). Disability: a life course approach. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Prince, M. (2009). Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Scotch Richard K., 2001, From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Shah, S. (2008). Young Disabled People: Aspirations, Choices and Constraints. Surrey: Ashgate.

Shah, S. (2005). Career success of disabled high-flyers. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Shah Sonali and Priestley Mark, 2011, Disability and social change. Private lives and public policies, Bristol, Policy Press.

Shakespeare Tom, 2004, « Social models of disability and other life strategies », Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 6, 1, p. 8‑21.

Shakespeare Tom, 2013, Disability rights and wrongs revisited, London; New York, Routledge.

Stiker Henri-Jacques, 1999, A history of disability, University of Michigan Press.

Stone D., 1984, The disabled state, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Swain, J., French, S., Barnes, C., & Thomas, C. (2013). Disabling barriers – Enabling environments. London: Sage.

Thomas C., 1997, « The baby and the bath water: disabled women and motherhood in social context », Sociology of Health & Illness, 19, 5, p. 622‑643.

Ungerson C., 1999, « Personal assistants and disabled people: an examination of a hybrid form of work and care », Work, Employment and Society, 13, 4, p. 583‑600.

Vanhala Lisa, 2011, Making Rights a Reality? Disability Rights Activists and Legal Mobilization, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Ville Isabelle and Ravaud Jean-François, 2007, “French Disability Studies: Differences and Similarities,.” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, vol. 9, n° 3-4, p. 138–145.

WHO. 2011. World Report on Disability. Malta: World Health Organization & World Bank.

Winance, Myriam, Isabelle Ville, and Jean-François Ravaud. 2007. “Disability Policies in France: Changes and Tensions between the Category-Based, Universalist and Personalized Approaches.” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 9(3-4):160–81.

Recommended academic journals: ALTER, European Journal of Disability Research, Disability and society, Disability studies quarterly, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, Canadian journal of disability studies, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research.

Archival sources: Disability archives UK (CDS-Centre for disability studies, University of Leeds)