Congratulations to Dr Elizabeth Evans, Reader in Politics, who has been awarded an ISRF Mid-Career Research Fellowship for a project on ‘Disability and Politics: Rethinking Representation’!
Here are the details of the project:
Theoretical approaches to political representation typically distinguish between three dimensions: descriptive representation, the similarity between elected representatives and the represented in terms of their characteristics and backgrounds; substantive representation, the reflection of citizens’ interests and opinions in the preferences of decision-makers and in the outputs of the policy-making process; and, symbolic representation, the effects that representatives have on the electorate. These dimensions have been analysed empirically, specifically in relation to gender and/or ethnicity, which has developed scholarly knowledge and the public understanding of political representation. However, there have been very few studies of disability as it relates to political representation, either at the theoretical or empirical level. This project brings together interdisciplinary disability scholarship with political theory and political science, in order to rethink political representation.
Debates and policies concerning accessibility and inclusion in politics often make reference to disability as one of a list of social groups, and yet to what extent do these proposals seriously reflect upon or engage with either the needs or interests of disabled people? Rather than simply adding disability into existing approaches to political representation, this project seeks to fundamentally rethink what we mean when we talk about political representation, interrogating the implicit, if not explicit, ableist assumptions that lie at its core, especially those concerning merit.
This project questions how a disability lens helps us rethink the three dimensions of political representation. How should we approach descriptive representation in relation to a heterogenous, and sometimes invisible, social group? For example, how do societal approaches to learning disabilities complicate debates concerning the politics of presence? The research will also interrogate the ways in which we conceive of the substantive representation of disabled people’s issues and interests. For example, how does the typically individualised, medicalised and paternalistic approach to disabled people affect the representation of their interests in the policy-making process? Finally, how should we approach symbolic representation in light of assorted impairments, and the porous nature of disability as a social category. For example, how does the varied nature of disability complicate the symbolic value attached to the actions of disabled politicians?
By developing theoretical approaches to political representation, this project questions how adequately existing dimensions of representation are able to respond to debates concerning the presence of disabled people in political institutions. It also examines the ways in which certain frames and narratives dominate the conceptualisation of group identities, issues and interests. This research therefore brings together normative political theory and political science with disability studies, to reimagine what political representation looks like for a heterogeneous social group who remain amongst the most marginalised (and sometimes invisible) in society.