It’s the dying embers of winter in 2005. I am in a musty room in the education building at the University of Sheffield. I am a PhD student who is still floundering around trying to find somewhere to belong. I’m a geographer by discipline and I’ve come along to a meeting of people who have all self-identified as being interested in the social study of disability. There’s not many of us and we are all a bit nervous. It’s being facilitated by Dr Dan Goodley who is new-ish to the university and, from what I can tell, is trying to gather together some academic friends. I recognise the feeling. It’s not been long since my geography horizons have expanded far enough to encompass geographies of disability and, then, beyond that to disability studies. One of the reasons I’m sitting at the back of this room is because I could do with some academic friends too; friends that would understand what it felt like to be navigating the academic and emotional seas of an emergent critical approach to disability.
It feels exciting to be here; I’m not the only one who ‘gets it’. There are professors, lecturers and established researchers with lots of talk of joint bids, collaborative writing projects and potential conferences. And then, during a lull in discussion I surprise myself by voicing a thought that has been floating round my head: “it would be really good if there was a space for PhD students to talk to each other”. “Good idea” said Dan Goodley “so you set that up then, that’ll be great”. It was said with complete faith in my ability to do so and with complete expectation that it would, indeed, be great.
And that’s how it began, with an accidental comment in a musty seminar room. I could, of course, have just gone home, had a nice cup of tea and forgotten about all it but, as I said, I was in the market for some academic friends. I arranged to send an email around all doctoral students asking if anyone who was researching disability from a social perspective wanted to get together to explore possibilities of supporting each other. I had about five replies from departments as diverse as dentistry, education, law and physiotherapy. We met up in another musty seminar room, this time in the geography building, and bonded over our academic isolation (it’s hard being the only one in your department who knows who Mike Oliver is!!).
Quickly a small and committed group formed (Katherine Runswick-Cole, Tabby Collingbourne and Liz Croot and myself). It was agreed that we would take a low key approach for the most part – we’d book a room, tell people and then gather (with biscuits) for a few hours once a month. We also agreed on a name – the Disability Research Forum (the DRF). We wanted to be a forum – an environment for discussion, an opportunity for assembly, a medium for alliance.
Monday, 23rd May 2005 saw the first proper meeting. The four of us welcome a few more and we discussed the process of writing up focus group material, disability issues in international non-governmental organisations and, finally, the ‘inclusive design’ of packaging. During the subsequent months, our numbers increased and we widened our reach to encompass students from history, mechanical engineering, English, landscape and animal/plant sciences. Meetings were fascinating to say the least. In our first year we also bid for money to deliver skills training for researchers. We were awarded this money two years running and hosted external speakers on accessible communication, international disability policy and writing research bids. We even hosted Peter White (from Radio 4) for a day of media training and published a synopsis of our workshop with Sue Maynard Campell, MBE in the current issues section of Disability and Society.
It would not be too far from the truth to say that the DRF saved my PhD. At the time of its inception I was floundering and, looking back now, I can see that as it grew, I grew. I started to stake a claim to a ‘specialist area’ and I felt supported in my endeavors. I’ve heard the same thing from others over the years and I’m in no doubt that the DRF made a difference just by being in existence. In many ways this is why it continues to endure – it exists and people participate if and when they want to, but they always know it’s there.
When my PhD journey came to an end I was keen that the DRF didn’t fall by the way side. When I moved across town to a lectureship at Sheffield Hallam University in early 2007 I started to book a whole new set of musty rooms and hoped that the change in venue (and my change in role) wouldn’t make too much difference. Luckily it didn’t.
During the following 10 years, the DRF has gained a co-convener when Jen Slater joined the Disability Studies team in 2012and it has been a part of supporting and hosting the Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane conferences. It has also celebrated its role in the first publication from the conference series – Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane: Precarious Positions – and the publication of a Disability Studies text book by two of its founding members, Approaching Disability: Critical Issues and Perspectives.
Over the past year, as our academic journeys have taken us to deeper into university management and research, Jen and I have decided to lend the DRF baton to Stephanie Swain and Hannah Ebben. As current doctoral students, both are committed to continuing to provide a friendly space for disability studies scholars at all stages in their academic studies or career.
It easy to think that there’s no longer a need for the DRF. It is easy to think, now there are text books, degree courses, dedicated journals and multiple conferences specific to disability studies, that those engaging in disability research don’t feel isolated or marginalised by the dominant disciplines. It’s easy but it isn’t wise. Contemporary global, national and local contexts tell us that those who wish to pursue a critical approach to the study of disability are still few and far between. Their endeavours are risky because they often challenge views and beliefs that are widely taken to be common sense. They are in need of all the academic friends they can get!
Details of all past DRF events can be found here.
Details of all future DRF events can be found here.
And although I have Disability Studies to thank for introducing me to many of my close friends (and my husband) I’m not going anywhere – I’m still in the market for some more academic friends and hope to meet you at a DRF event in the near future.
~ Dr. Rebecca Mallett (firstname.lastname@example.org)