Reviewed by Colin Griffiths


This book aims to guide health professionals into the dangerous waters of disability studies. The book is specifically targeted at physiotherapists and occupational therapists, but it is relevant to all healthcare professionals who have an interest in informing themselves about how to deliver the best possible care and support to people who have a disability.

The authors, who have previously written extensively on the subject, take a reflective, participative approach to draw the reader into the world of disability. This works quite well, in that contemplation of the graphic experiences of people with disabilities (as articulated in text boxes which are inserted into relevant chapters) serves to develop an incipient empathy between the reader and those with disabilities.

The book examines historical understandings of disability—how disability is conceptualised and how it might be reconfigured. Thus, the medical model comes in for a fairly comprehensive criticism as being patriarchal, disempowering and causing people with intellectual disability (and those with other disabilities) to lead historically miserable lives. The social model of care (which is considered as an advance on the medical model) rests on the assumption that the way society views and treats a person who has an impairment results in that person also having a disability which may consequently be ameliorated or eliminated if societal attitudes are changed.

All this background leads to the second part of the book, which discusses how people with disability may be empowered to take control of their lives and of the services that are offered to them. The role of centres of independent living is described, leading to a discussion of what an empowered organisation looks like. The culmination of the book is the chapter on ‘partnership’ which conceptualises organisations that support people with disabilities being run by genuine power-sharing partnerships between people with disabilities and professionals. The book concludes with a chapter on inclusive research.

This book is quite theoretical, it feels like the product of a university sociology department and, as such, it may seem a little irrelevant to improving the lives of people with intellectual disability. Such a view would be mistaken, however. It cites the experiences of many people with ID and is relevant to their lives because it maps the territory into which activists, professionals and people with disabilities must embark in order to change the way English (or Irish) society approaches disability—but also in order to change individual lives. I would recommend the book as useful reading for professionals, carers and people with disabilities who are motivated to try to improve the care system and way it serves those who require its support.

UNDERSTANDING DISABILITY. A GUIDE FOR HEALTH PROFESSIONALS by Sally French and John Swain (2008). London: Churchill Livingstone. ISBN 978 0 443 10139 7.


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