Disability Activism and the Politics of Scale

By Kitchin, Rob; Wilton, Robert | The Canadian Geographer, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Disability Activism and the Politics of Scale


Kitchin, Rob, Wilton, Robert, The Canadian Geographer


Introduction

Disabled people remain one of the most margin alized groups in many developed societies Despite this marginalization--and, in part because of it--the last three decades have seen the emergence of a political presence for disabled people in many countries. Since the early 1970s activists have challenged the view of disability a an individualized, medical phenomenon and rejected pity and paternalism in favour of equality and empowerment. International, national regional and local disability organizations haw emerged, although the presence and political effectiveness of these organizations varies markedly between different countries and contexts.

In this paper, we examine the role of spatial scale in mediating and shaping political struggle between disabled people and the state. We draw or recent theoretical developments concerning the social construction of spatial scale to interpret two case studies of disability activism within Canada and Ireland. A number of questions guide our work: At what scales are political (state) decision, made that impact the lives of disabled people? To what extent have disabled people been able to mobilize effectively at those scales that matte most for sociospatial justice? How successful have groups been at 'jumping scale'--whereby political claims and power established atone geographical scale can be expanded to another--and with what consequences? How has the restructuring of political scales wrought by neoliberalism influenced the nature and relative success of disability movements in different contexts? Ultimately, we focus on spatial scale to provide additional insight into the nature of disability politics in Canada and Ireland and the opportunities and challenges facing disability movements in both contexts. As such, the paper builds upon and extends research that has investigated the geographies of disability (e.g., Imrie 1996; Butler and Part 1999; Gleeson 1999; Kitchin 2000) and social movements (e.g. Cresswell 1996; Brown 1997; Routledge 1997 more generally.

The paper proceeds as follows. We first examine recent theoretical developments in work on the politics of scale. We then discuss the development of disability movements in Western societies thinking specifically about the significance of the movements, factors facilitating and/or constraining their success and the spatial scales at which such movements have been operating. The main focus of the paper comprises two case studies of disability activism. The first of these is in Ontario, with emphasis on the scaling up of activism from the municipality to the provincial level in a period of municipal restructuring. The second case deals with disability activism in Ireland. Emphasis is placed on the significance of political clientelism as an explanation for the relative success of activists at the local level and their relative absence at the national scale. Finally, we identify lessons for disability activism and the politics of scale.

The Politics of Scale

Recent geographic research has challenged out understanding of spatial scale as 'unproblematic, pre-given and fixed hierarchy of bounded spaces', with theorists suggesting instead that scale be 'conceptualized as socially constructed rather than ontologically pre-given, and that the geographic scales constructed are themselves implicated in the constitution of social, economic and political processes' (Delaney and Leitner 1997, 93; see also Herod 1998; Marston 2000; Miller 2000). As part of broader developments in the theorization of social space, a number of authors have argued (1) that scale is produced by actors and therefore open to transformation and (2) that the discourses and actions constituting the politics of scale are a fundamental ingredient of the ways in which we go about creating, living within and struggling over a complex set of power relations present within spaces of production and reproduction (Herod 1991; Jonas 1994; Miller 2000). …

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