Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2004, Volume 24, No. 4
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Swain, John, Sally French, and Colin Cameron (2003). Controversial Issues in a Disabling Society. Buckingham: Open University Press. Paperback, 198 pages.

Reviewed by Emily Perkins, University of Alabama

Controversial Issues in a Disabling Society is the latest addition to the Disability, Human Rights and Society series. In this objective and accessible introduction to the field of disability studies, Swain, French, and Cameron build on the social model approach to argue that disabled individuals are oppressed by a hostile and unadaptive environment rather than by their own inabilities and limitations. With the aid of careful and thoughtful organization, the book successfully delivers effective guidelines for teaching students of disability studies. Each chapter presents key controversial issues in the field of disability studies, applies helpful case studies to these issues, and suggests questions to stimulate debate in the classroom.

Swain, French, and Cameron's book is a compilation of essays by British authors who specialize in the fields of disability rights, education, health, and social work. Among its contributors are professors from the University of Northumbria and the University of Wales. Consequently, a large portion of the book is devoted to the discussion of British laws, organizations, goods, and services. Readers expecting an in-depth discussion of American disability policies and procedures will likely find Issues a disappointing read, but for those interested in comparing American laws with those of another country, this book is a valuable resource. Several contributors, for example, provide a brief comparison of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Britain's Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, and they also discuss the differences between American and British institutions, such as independent living centers.

Issues claims that modern society is experiencing a "paradigm shift:"

This is a shift in thinking of disability as a condition of the individual, to understanding disability as a condition of a society in which people with impairments are discriminated against, segregated and denied full participative citizenship. It is a shift from 'disabled' being seen as a personal tragedy, to 'disabled' being a positive identity. And it is a shift from dependency and passivity, to the rights of disabled people to control decision-making processes that shape their lives (1). The contributors provocatively question traditional ways of thinking about language, power structures, values, and rules and regulations and examine these topics from various viewpoints.

For structural purposes, the work is divided into three parts. The first part, titled "Foundations," defines the term "disability" and explains that "disability studies" is an interdisciplinary field comprised of studies in psychology, sociology, linguistics, economics, anthropology, politics, history, and media studies. The second part, titled "Values and Ideologies," explores the issue of ownership of the body and voices stimulating questions such as "Why is disability viewed as tragic?" and "Why is independence viewed as positive?" In "Values and Ideologies," independence is actually viewed as disabling in many ways; the more empowering, healthy, and pragmatic approach to social relations is interdependence. The genetic revolution's oppressive effects on the disabled community are also discussed in detail. In addition, the topics of charity and sexual oppression are broached with diplomacy and sensitivity, and the topics of disability pride and the disability arts are discussed with optimism. The third part of Controversial Issues, titled "Policy, Provision, and Practice," articulates the difference between inclusion and integration as well as the difference between "care" and control. It also provides a surprising and enlightening analysis of globalization's enabling and disabling effects.

By providing a general introduction to disability studies, providing ideas for classroom activities, and providing informed suggestions for further reading, Controversial Issues proves itself a valuable resource for policymakers, social workers, and teachers and students of disability-related fields. Those interested in equality studies and those seeking to accept their own disability may also find this latest addition to the Disability, Human Rights and Society series a helpful resource.

Copyright (c) 2004 Emily Perkins

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)