Abstract

This paper details the work of a group of learning disabled people (people with intellectual disabilities) who contribute to the teaching of students undertaking a degree program at one of the UK's most elite universities. Traditional notions relating to knowledge production within academia are examined and we demonstrate how the participation of learning disabled people in classroom teaching challenges these. Drawing on the work of Freire (1972) the paper demonstrates how co-teaching by learning disabled people has a transformative impact on educational experiences. Finally, the current changes impacting the UK higher education sector are detailed and we explore how these changes are negatively impacting on courses that seek to move away from traditional approaches to pedagogy.


Accessible summary

  • Learning disabled people have an important role in teaching about learning disability.
  • The Learning Disability Studies program in the University of Manchester was setup and is delivered in partnership with learning disabled people.
  • This partnership has many advantages. It changes what we know about learning disability and allows the voice of learning disabled people to be heard. It also helps students to understand complicated ideas and to work as partners with learning disabled people.
  • Working in partnership can take a lot of time and change the ways academics usually work. This leads to conflict with the university and the LDS program is now closing.

Introduction

This paper will explore the partnership work in the Learning Disability Studies (LDS) program at the University of Manchester, UK. The term 'learning disability' is used in the UK as an alternative to the phrase 'intellectual disability' more commonly used in the US. Further, the term 'learning disabled person' (as opposed to 'person with learning disability') is preferred by the learning disabled authors of this paper, since it conveys the idea that people are disabled by the society they live in and not by their own bodies or minds (Oliver, 1996).

Partnership work between learning disabled people and academic staff stands at the heart of the LDS program, which was developed with, and continues to be supported by, a Partnership Steering Group (PSG) that is mostly comprised of learning disabled experts. This partnership, we argue in the paper, is crucial to Disability Studies pedagogy. Such pedagogy, which seeks to embrace the social model of disability and to create transformative education, enables students to consider situations in relation to the social and political context and empowers them to stand in solidarity with others and challenge disablist practices and norms (Goodley, 2011; Greenstein, 2015).

There is an increasing amount of literature that has been written in partnership between non-disabled academics and learning disabled people (e.g. Blunt et al, 2012; Chapman et al, 2015; Hollomotz and the Speak-Up Group, 2009). The presence of the voices and opinions of learning disabled people within the academic literature is a relatively recent turn that is to be welcomed (McClimens, 2008). However, it is often difficult or impossible to determine the extent of the involvement of the learning disabled 'partner(s)' in the production of these texts (Blyth and Docherty, 2015). Terms such as 'partnership research', 'inclusive research', 'participatory research' or even 'emancipatory research' can mean different things to different people (Walmsley and Johnson, 2003). With this in mind, we want to be explicit about the process of the production of this paper in order that the reader can make a judgment as to the 'inclusive' nature of the work for themselves.

The paper is based on collaborative ethnographic reflections by the authors on over 10 years' experience of working together on the program. We began the writing by spending considerable time in group meetings, discussing our joint experiences of teaching and identifying and deciding upon the relevant key issues. All of the conversations were audio-recorded and/or minuted in detail. Following this process, the two authors who are full-time academic staff on the program [Blyth and Greenstein] started drafting a paper that aimed to authentically reflect the views of the whole group. This draft was then sent to each member and also read aloud during PSG meetings. Following feedback and comments from PSG members, further amendments were made until the group confirmed that the article is an accurate reflection of their views. In addition, readers of this article will note that throughout there are sentences that appear in bold and italics. These are verbatim comments made by various PSG members during the process of reading back the various drafts that are felt to be important in relation to letting members 'speak for themselves' rather than these comments being incorporated more generally into the text. The accessibility of some of the language used within the article may be questioned. However, all the learning disabled authors of this paper made a very conscious decision that they wanted to use 'big words' in their work and be supported to understand what those words meant.

RH: If we don't use these big words and explain them learning disabled people will never learn.

We begin by describing the development of the program and discuss the central role that partnership work has played in its inception and design. This design is in conflict with prevalent academic cultures and traditions in which knowledge is valued when produced by academics who have undergone specialized training and is discussed in sophisticated language (Illich, 1971). Focusing particularly on teaching and drawing on insights from critical pedagogy (Freire, 1972) we explore how partnership work allows students to connect the personal and the political and enables connections between theory and practice. We draw attention to the relational aspects of teaching and learning, and argue that partnership work needs to be based on long standing relations of trust and cooperation. In the last section of the paper we explore how the increased focus on markets and competition, which was intensified by recent UK reforms to the structure and funding of higher education (Taylor & McCaig, 2014), has made partnership between learning disabled people and academic staff nearly impossible. And indeed, the LDS program is now undergoing a process of closure.

The History of the Learning Disability Studies Program

The University of Manchester (UK) recruited the first cohort of students to the BA (Hons) in Learning Disability Studies in September 2001. The program aimed to offer students the opportunity to participate in academic study whilst also gaining experience of working alongside learning disabled people. Superficially, there was nothing ground-breaking about a program that provided students with experience of working with learning disabled people, after all, social work and nursing programs had been doing this for years (Beresford and Boxall, 2012). However, there are significant differences. Unlike the majority of courses that provide degree programs for people working in learning disability services, the LDS program does not teach about any specific syndromes or impairment labels; there are no lectures on Down's Syndrome, Fragile X or Autism. There is, however, an array of course units that explore the intersection between disability and society from a 'social model of disability' perspective (Boxall et al, 2004). Similar approaches are taken in relation to the educational system and its institutions whereby students are encouraged to take a critical approach to exploring the current system and ask questions such as "what is wrong with the education system?" as opposed to "what is wrong with a child with special educational needs?".

More importantly, the program was not developed and led in the traditional academic manner (by non-disabled academic 'experts') but by the PSG, whose membership is largely made up of learning disabled people. From the conception of both the program and the PSG, the program team were committed to ensuring that the PSG played a pivotal role in the academic experience of the students on the program, and thus for the last 13 years PSG members have become an important part of the teaching team, lecturing to students about a variety of subjects such as advocacy, relationships, partnership research, communication, education and support.

RH: I've been teaching and researching here for 13 years which is a quarter of my life.

Many members had, historically, expressed a real desire to become involved in the education of professionals working with learning disabled people (Race, 2002), and held passionate views on how professionals should be trained and the role of 'experts by experience' in that training (Blyth and Chapman, 2008). PSG members have been the recipients of learning disability services for many years (such as living in long-stay institutions, attending special schools, day centers and other segregated 'specialist' services) and thus have accrued a wealth of experience and expertise relating to the provision, development and management of learning disability services. This expertise is very different to traditional forms of academic knowledge, as it is based on lived experience.

CE: We share our life experiences to help them [the students] learn better and we can get confidence and ability from the students.

LT: After my lectures people come up and say how much they have enjoyed my experiential input.

In addition to the teaching on the course, PSG members take an active role in course development, research and publishing. Several members have worked as co-researchers on a number of funded research projects and, at the time of writing this article, are involved in a £900k research funding application. Examples of academic publications produced by members of the PSG and academic staff include Boxall et al (2004); Carson and Docherty (2002); Docherty et al (2005); Chapman et al (2015); and Blyth and Docherty (2015). The monthly PSG meetings are attended by learning disabled members, students and staff, and provide a space for evaluating and developing the program, planning events, studying current issues and welcoming visitors (Perry, 2014). This collaboration keeps the teaching and learning on the course in touch with the real experiences of learning disabled people and changes the traditional power relations of knowledge production (see later section).

RH: I have lectured lots of students. Our course makes a big difference to disabled people's lives.

Building Knowledge in Partnership

Blyth et al (2013) detail how, in general, universities have had a fragile and unequal relationship with learning disabled co-researchers/co-teachers. They draw attention to the early debates in the UK relating to the position of disabled researchers within academia (Oliver 1996; Oliver and Barton 2000) and how, even within that debate, learning disabled people remained (or perhaps more accurately were maintained as) invisible (Goodley, 2001). In many ways, the invisibility of learning disabled people within UK universities (and, disappointingly, within the emerging field of (Critical) Disability Studies) was one of the driving motivations behind the creation of the LDS program. From the outset, traditional approaches to the study of the social world, which could be described as an 'outside looking in' perspective (i.e. the academic providing students with a 'picture' of the individuals or societies that are under discussion) were rejected. A different approach to teaching and knowledge production was called for, in which the perspectives of learning disabled people are not only reflected in the curriculum, but are integral to the construction and teaching of the course (Oliver and Barton, 2000).

RH: Nothing about us without us!

Recently, UK higher education degrees that lead to professional qualifications (such as social work, nursing or speech and language therapy) have been increasingly incorporating service user involvement into their program design and delivery. This followed a shift in policy that called for the recognition that service users have particular expertise and experience of their situation, and that they should therefore be involved in the "education and training of those providing the services which they will access, helping to ensure more targeted professional responses to the needs and wishes of service users" (Chambers & Hickey, 2012, p. 5). This approach signifies a needed transition from the view of disabled people as passive recipients of services, but is still less appropriate to the LDS program, which does not train students in any specific professional practice and takes the social model of disability as its starting point. While members of the PSG may use social services for support, their involvement in the program is not defined by, or limited to, commenting on the services they use. Members teach and inform curriculum development on diverse issues, which may include their history with services, but also cover subjects such as self-advocacy and inclusive research. This recognizes that learning disabled people have valuable expertise and experiences - not only as service users, but also as active people engaged in a variety of social activities.

This 'insider' perspective, delivered by what some have referred to as, 'experts by experience' (Chapman et al, 2015) can be understood as challenging traditional concepts of 'expert' knowledge and the very notion of knowledge production within academia. A result of the centrality of the PSG to the teaching is that students are provided with a very different experience when considering the social world that can be called an 'inside looking out' approach. Inasmuch as perspectives provided by the PSG members offer students insights into the experiences of disabled people living in a disablist society, encouraging them to, metaphorically, stand side-by-side with learning disabled co-teachers and 'look out' at a social world that disables individuals and groups who do not conform to some fanciful set of normative requirements.

ChB: It is only disabled people who know what it's like to be disabled.

The commitment to the social model of disability means that the non-learning disabled academic staff aim to position themselves as allies to learning disabled people, and to make the program's aims and outcomes accountable to their views and aspirations. Parallel to Oliver's (1992) demands for disability research design based on the principles of reciprocity, gain and empowerment, the LDS program seeks to produce knowledge in partnership with learning disabled people (reciprocity), and that this knowledge will be applied in ways that have a positive impact on learning disabled people's lives (gain and empowerment). This openly political commitment bears direct relevance to processes of teaching and learning, which can no longer be understood as a neutral process of transferring knowledge from lecturer to student, what Freire (1972) calls "the banking model of education", but rather stresses the co-construction of knowledge through dialogue, the need to explore particular situations in the context of the wider social processes in which they occur, and the application of these understandings into practice in ways that can support learning disabled people and challenge barriers for inclusion. It is for these reasons that insights from critical pedagogy, a strand of educational theory that looks at how education can work to challenge the social exclusion of marginalized groups, are particularly useful for programs committed to the social model of disability (Greenstein, 2015).

Conscientization — connecting personal experiences with the social context in which they occur

For Freire (1972), the first step towards learning that can transform social marginalization is supporting students to recognize connections between individual problems and the social contexts in which they are embedded, a process he calls conscientization. The partnership works on all levels of the course, and in particular the involvement of PSG members in teaching and assessment, supports this process of conscientization on several levels. First, it brings into the classroom personal knowledge and experience that could not, and should not, be provided by academic staff.

LT: We know more about our lives than academics.

CE: You need to know our experiences and what we have been through in our past.

RH: Because you are not disabled you don't know the ins and outs of it.

Such lived experiences, as Rush (2008) argues, help students gain deeper understanding of issues discussed in lectures, and gain a fuller and more empathetic understanding of people's lives. However, the incorporation of lived experience on its own does not guarantee a process of conscientization. Having learning disabled people tell their life stories without explicitly connecting those to the social systems and power relations that produce disablement, a phenomenon that Sinclair (1994, n.p) calls "self-narrating zoo exhibits", may work to reinforce a view of disabled people as 'exotic others', whose views and experiences need to be responded to with sympathy or inspiration rather than form the basis for solidarity and alliance in struggles for social transformation. We find that co-teaching, a system in which a PSG member teaches alongside an academic member of staff, is a particularly useful way for countering this danger. In these lectures the academic member of staff takes responsibility over the delivery of much of the theoretical content and the preparation of teaching materials, and the learning disabled lecturer intervenes at different points to provide examples, respond to questions from students and discuss their point of view on the subject.

RH: You do your yapping and I just add in my stuff.

We originally used co-teaching as a way of supporting learning disabled lecturers, who may, at times, struggle to plan and deliver an entire lecture on their own. The constant presence of the academic staff offers a flexible division of labor, and allows the learning disabled lecturer to take on as much of the teaching as they feel comfortable doing, and, if they feel uncomfortable answering, deferring questions or request for clarifications from students to the academic lecturer. It also allows the learning disabled lecturer to comment in real time on statements made by the academic lecturer, either agreeing or challenging them, without having to systematically teach set theoretical content.

Further, we have found co-teaching highly productive in supporting students in actively making connections between theory and experience. In these sessions, the presence of learning disabled people in the room makes the academic lecturer more conscious of the need to explain any jargon, and both lecturers use plain language and accessible explanations, which students often find helpful. Moreover, the presence of both lecturers in the room enables explicit connections to be made between theory and lived experiences and, furthermore, models the kind of reflective and inclusive dialogue that we hope graduates of the program will embrace in their interactions with learning disabled people.

The partnership work on the course does not only enable students' conscientization, but also supports academic staff and PSG members in connecting personal experiences with the social structures in which they occur. Being involved in teaching, research and curriculum development with other disabled and non-disabled people allows us to learn from one another and bring together our different forms of knowledge and expertise.

Praxis — connecting theory to practice

The process of conscientization — connecting personal stories with the social, political and historical circumstances in which they occur, is necessary for developing a sociological outlook (Wright Mills, 1959), which stands at the heart of the social model's reconfiguration of disability as a social phenomenon created through practices of exclusion and pathologization. Yet, as Freire (1972) argues, to be transformative, education cannot stop at exposing social injustice, but learning needs to be geared towards "praxis", which is defined as the power and know-how to take action against oppression. Praxis involves engaging in a cycle of learning and theory, which are geared towards action, application, and reflection. Social transformation, Freire maintains, is the product of praxis at the collective level.

The first level of praxis that is enabled through our partnership work is the change in the relations of knowledge production and discourse around learning disability. The presence of PSG members within lecture halls and meeting rooms across the University of Manchester does not only challenge dominant discourses relating to who can be considered academic experts (generally non-disabled people with PhD after their names), but also contributes towards an alternative discourse. This discourse, Fairclough and Wodak (2004, p357) argue, "is socially constitutive as well as socially shaped: it constitutes situations, objects of knowledge, and the social identities of and relationships between people and groups of people." As part of this discursive resistance, much of the teaching on the LDS program is dedicated to exploring issues related to the exclusion of learning disabled people from learning disability research (Blunt et al, 2012) and the possibilities and dilemmas involved in conducting inclusive research (Chapman and Townson, 2012). In their final year LDS students are required to undertake a semester long module relating to participatory and emancipatory research, which involves teaching by learning disabled researchers (from the PSG and other groups). This in itself challenges common perceptions about what learning disabled people can do, and can be understood from a Foucauldian perspective as an act of resistance to dominant forms of discursive power that seek (and largely succeed) to regulate learning disabled people in ways that preclude the possibility that they are able to contribute to (and in fact, are crucial to) the production of 'expert' knowledge relating to society's (and its institutions and structures) responses to learning disabled people.

However, the application of this learning into practice, i.e. encouraging students to take on research projects that are designed and carried out in partnership with learning disabled people, is in stark conflict with other university demands. In order to be awarded an Honors degree, LDS students are required to design, carry out and write a research-based dissertation, which must be completed within approximately seven months. This renders the time and resource commitment needed to ensure meaningful participation of learning disabled people in the research nearly impossible. Further, the involvement of learning disabled people in the research would immediately categorize the project with the University's ethics framework as 'medium risk', meaning that students would have to allow an additional 6-8 weeks for gaining ethical approval. This creates a dilemma for academic staff on the program who are committed (professionally and contractually) to supporting students to submit their dissertations. This commitment often means advising students to only interview professionals for their research (which is considered 'low risk'), completely marginalizing the views of learning disabled people. This brings to mind, Foucault's (1988, p1) argument that while "relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression… in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage, socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc… it's a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others." It is through this freezing of power relations, we would argue, that ethics committees, which were created to protect research participants from abuse of power by researchers, end up excluding learning disabled people from the process of knowledge production in ways that significantly benefit non-disabled 'experts' (academics and professionals).

RH: If we don't do the teaching things will just go back to how they were. Students will not know how to work with learning disabled people.

While this issue is unresolved, the involvement of PSG members in the assessment of students on the participatory and emancipatory research module provides opportunities for praxis and enables students to apply some principles of inclusive research. As part of the assessment students read and critically discuss a piece of inclusive research and present their discussion to the class in accessible ways. PSG members assess the presentations in collaboration with academic members of staff, and the students are specifically marked on the accessibility of their presentations. While this is no substitute for involving learning disabled people in all aspects of the research, it does provide students some practical experience in making academic discussions accessible and the opportunity to receive feedback from learning disabled people themselves on the success of their efforts.

Another aspect of praxis is the application of learning to students interactions with learning disabled people in their work and practice placement. Rush (2008), who explored the role of mental health service users' involvement in nurse education, found that involvement in classroom teaching can support transformative learning which allows students to reflect on their own and others' practice, engage in dialogue with other perspectives, and take specific actions in relation to what they have learnt. As Rush argues, amongst the mechanisms that enable such transformative learning are the discussion of personal experience and the role and power reversal that is enabled by having service users as teachers rather than patients.

LT: By teaching students they see us as people first not disabilities.

Having learning disabled members lecture on the program allows their view to be treated with the respect and validity that is accorded to a lecturer in an academic context, and not with the dismissal that could often be applied in institutional settings where the learning disabled person might be perceived as lacking in mental capacity and therefore unable to make decisions or offer valid interpretations.

LF: Our work makes a difference for students when they go and work with people and services. They meet us here on the course and then they meet learning disabled people in the outside world.

Further, the PSG wrote a set of guidelines for working alongside learning disabled people which they discuss with students before they start their placement. These discussions support students in explicitly building bridges between practice and ideas informed by the social model of disability and person centered approaches, and in incorporating the standpoints of learning disabled people into their reflective thinking about their own and others' practice.

LT: A student told me about watching someone being fed something they didn't want and asked me what she should have done.

Relational aspects of teaching — dialogue and power

Partnership work does more than impact on the content or outcomes of learning, as it requires us to recognize and value the relational processes involved in education. We have demonstrated above how co-teaching encourages students to contextualize their learning and build bridges between theory and practice, and will now turn to explore its inherently relational and dialogical nature.

Through 13 years of doing partnership work (though only one of us was continuously involved in the program for the entire period) we have learnt that developing the trust, skills and confidence that enable co-teaching requires building sustained relationships between learning disabled people and academic staff. These relationships require commitment of time and resources, and may take years to build.

RH: Is it easy to work with learning disabled people or is it sometimes difficult?

Dr CrB: I think it is enjoyable; it can be difficult sometimes when you have pressure from the university to produce writing that is complicated. Writing this paper takes 4 or 5 times longer when we have to do it in a group. This is both enjoyable and difficult. I am also worried that I am exploiting people when they talk about personal things.

Dr CrB: Is it hard to work with non-disabled people, do you feel that we take control and can be bossy?

RH: It was hard at first because no one trusted us and the managers upstairs said we shouldn't be here. Would you take what PSG members said and write it as your own? Sometimes people take what people say and write it as their own.

CE: It's not hard because you as a person have to know all about working with learning disabled people. You need to know what they do, can they write for themselves, can they do things for themselves, dress themselves, make their tea, do things in the community and all that.

Partnership work also requires developing ongoing relationships with students. The LDS program has always run with a small number of core staff and cohorts of 20-30 students. This intimate structure helps facilitate many group discussions and activities during lectures, and offers ongoing and personal support to students through their degree. Further, it has allowed members of the PSG to develop relationships with the students

RH: I used to be very nervous about teaching but if I meet the students before it helps.

LT: The students remember me. I come to the lecture and they say, hey, you did a lecture for us last year.

LF: When I first started with the PSG I was very very shy, and then I built up my confidence throughout. When I did my life story it was very moving. I did it with Paulette [student supporter for the PSG] and it took me a long time to do this.

Personal relationships that encourage learners and teachers to get to know one another and recognize each other as people with strengths and weaknesses who occupy a range of social positions are crucial for creating a safe space in which dialogue and reflection can emerge (Fielding & Moss, 2011; Greenstein, 2015; hooks, 1994). Yet, as we will discuss later, the changes to higher education in the UK bring many small degree programs, particularly those in Humanities, under threat of closure (Taylor &McCaig, 2014).

Partnership work under neoliberal reforms of higher education

As stated, in 2013 the University of Manchester decided to stop recruiting to the LDS program (which will result in the closure of the program in July 2016). This decision, the university explained, was taken in the context of rapidly changing higher education policy in the UK. This policy shift has led to many universities responding with changes to the courses offered and the marketing and branding strategies employed (Taylor & McCaig, 2014). The reforms, set out in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (2011) White Paper1 , continue a policy trend of corporatization and privatization of higher education in the UK, and are aimed at increasing competition through increased student fees (and decreased government funding), opening the higher education field to external providers, and changing the regulation regarding the numbers of students institutions can recruit.

As Taylor and McCaig (2014) note, these reforms were meant to increase differentiation between institutions, resulting in many universities taking steps to being seen as increasingly elite and attracting as many 'high achieving' young students as possible. In November 2011 the University of Manchester published its strategic plan Manchester 2020, in which it sets its goal to become one of the top 25 research universities in the world. The document is written in language associated with entrepreneurialism with phrases such as "innovation", "vibrant" and "internationally competitive" woven through the text to signify the sense of the pace, movement and constant change that characterizes much of neo-liberal education policy (Ball, 2008). The discourse of league tables and educational markets sets students and universities in a competitive race against each other, and is underlined by disablist assumptions.

RH: And you know what they can do with that [disablist assumptions].

The notion of academic 'excellence' is tied to an acceleration of pace (Vostal, 2014). Researchers conducting participatory projects with learning disabled people have pointed to the exclusionary effects of such acceleration which demands academic papers to be produced under strict time constraints which are at odds with the rhythm and needs of many disabled people (Stone and Priestley, 1996).

Further, the university's strategic plan contains substantial reference to its social responsibility goals, it aims to increase "openness and accessibility" by offering access programs that target and support "talented students who are from backgrounds that are currently under-represented in higher education", and by offering scholarships to "assist talented but economically disadvantaged students from some of the world's poorest countries" (University of Manchester, 2011, p. 16). This commitment to tackling economic and cultural exclusion is commendable, but it leaves disability based exclusion, and particularly the exclusion of people with cognitive differences, untackled and unremarked upon. This silence leaves disability as "the boundary condition that resides just on the other side of hope… the condition one must escape rather than improve" (Fergusson, 1987: 55 cited by Erevelles, 2000), a condition so deviant that it is beyond the realm of debates about openness, equality and social responsibility.

LF: Nobody gives a shit about us.

Universities have been responding to the reforms outlined with changes to the courses on offer. The focus on recruiting 'high achieving' young students, combined with increased attention to employability data (which was introduced by the previous government), led to closure or threat of closure of programs, particularly in the Arts and Humanities (Taylor & McCaig, 2014). This included the closure or amalgamation of several disability studies programs across the country. The LDS program, like many other disability studies programs, is not tied to any professional qualification in social care, education or health, but is a purely academic degree. This is not accidental but directly linked to the demand of disabled people in general, and learning disabled people in particular, to reclaim authority and control over their lives from the hands of professionals and academics, who for too long had the power to define and discuss disability (Oliver and Barton, 2000). As previously explored, the LDS course is rooted in the social model of disability and seeks to educate students about the ways society disables and devalues learning disabled people. Furthermore we seek to familiarize students with person-centered approaches to support, and to contextualize these within historical and political contexts. Working in partnership with learning disabled people on all aspects of the course, including teaching, research and assessment is crucial for achieving these goals. However, within an increasingly market-focused 'economy' of education, based on ideals of competition and aimed at launching financially lucrative careers, little value is attached to social critique and struggles for liberation. As Vic Finkelstein (2007, p. 12), one of the founders of the British disabled people's movement, puts it, "It's all about 'efficient' service provision (meaning who has the cheapest product to sell). The market has no need for non-productive groups such as 'political' organisations of disabled people."

Conclusion

Oliver (2004) explains that the social model of disability was never intended as a comprehensive theory of disability, but rather is an idea that needs to be applied in the struggle to challenge the social norms and institutions that disable many people. This transformative commitment means that we cannot simply teach about the social model without embodying in our own practices the demand that knowledge about disability be produced in reciprocity with disabled people, be accountable to their needs and perspectives, and have a positive impact on their lives (Oliver, 1992).

The leading role the PSG has played in the design and delivery of the LDS program was an attempt to embody the disabled people's movement's ideal — "nothing about us without us." Through this paper we have discussed how such partnership work, and in particular the process of co-teaching, has supported students to recognize the social aspects of disability and to work as allies to learning disabled people. However, insisting on the meaningful participation of disabled people, and in particular learning disabled people, in the process of knowledge production within academia requires a change in traditional values and practices, and stands in conflict with the current demands of university management and policy makers.

With the final closure of the program expected in June 2016, the future of the PSG is uncertain. University officials argued that the closure should not be seen as excluding learning disability from the academic curriculum, but rather as an opportunity to spread learning disabled people's voice across different subject areas and programs. From a positivist perspective that views knowledge as static and objective, independently existing in the world and transferred via the teacher into students' minds (Freire, 1972; McLaren, 2009), this must seem reasonable. However, partnership work that avoids tokenism requires that we recognize and value the relational aspects of education. This means investing time and resources in activities that might not be immediately translatable into measurable outcomes, such as getting to know one another and building trust, and stands in opposition to a vision of university teaching consisting of a list of speakers each delivering the occasional session to a lecture theatre full of students.

The idea that partnership work can happen through only sporadic (at best) involvement of learning disabled people in lectures and assessment events is unrealistic, as it ignores the relational and material resources that are required to support and sustain such work. Even if another university takes on the program, people cannot be simply transported into other geographical areas, and the PSG, with its unique set of expertise and legacies developed over 13 years, is likely to disappear. This paper is part of an effort to document our history and experience of resisting the exclusion of learning disabled people in academia, and in developing inclusive pedagogy through partnership work, so when the currents change again, the lessons we have learnt on our journey are not lost.

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Endnotes

  1. In the UK, White Papers are documents produced by the Government setting out details of future policy on a particular subject. A White Paper will often (but not always) be the basis for a Bill to be put before Parliament.
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