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Counting disability: Educator feedback

In this video, Louisa Smith and Leanne Dowse give feedback on the activity in the previous step, which involved exploring how disability is counted.
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MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Counting disability, Educator feedback.
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LOUISA SMITH: OK, so you’ve just gone and had a look at some of these large-scale international websites, that collect data around people with disabilities.
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LEANNE DOWSE: One of the questions we wanted you to really think about when you were looking at those is, who are the people collecting those statistics? What kind of organisations are these? Because they really have a lot of implications for what’s collected.
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LOUISA SMITH: Absolutely. And so some of the things that you can see emerging there are these ideas around poverty, that poverty and disability are strongly linked. Also that disability is being measured in particular ways around using this rather medical and health-oriented lens.
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LEANNE DOWSE: And we’ve talked before about the importance of being aware that disability is not a medical issue. That in fact, we may be talking about different impairments, but that, in effect, disability also has a very important social meaning. And one of the things that sort of worries me a little bit, when you look at these organisations and the statistics they collect, is that sometimes those social aspects of disability are really left out. I mean, I know you can see in some of the websites that we looked at, issues around poverty, for instance, but also around education, and around employment, and around the experiences of violence.
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These are really significant problems, there’s no doubt, and they’re problems for all of us. And it’s important to have some information about what that looks like for people with disabilities. But I’m always worried about what gets left out. So there were lots of other things that we might want some statistics on, like relationships–
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LOUISA SMITH: Social engagement. And I think– so it’s a really useful thing to be asking yourself, around what other things might you be interested in, if you were collecting that? And also, who is involved in these processes of working out the questions and directing these kind of large-scale, and expensive, data collection?
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LEANNE DOWSE: And so one of the things we do want to– we would really like to see, and we’d like to have people interrogate– is really the idea that when someone decides what has to be collected about disability, what’s really important for people with disabilities? Not just what’s important for, you know, international organisations, or national governments.
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LOUISA SMITH: I think one of the things that’s often missing, and invisible, too, in these statistics is what do we actually mean by disability? What is meant by impairment? And if we’re looking globally, it’s very, very difficult to be sure what those definitions are. Impairment means very, very different things, even in an Australian context.
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LEANNE DOWSE: Let alone in the Global South, and in countries that have cultures who look at disability extremely differently.
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LOUISA SMITH: I’m thinking of our friend, Johnny Gilroy, who’s done a little bit of work on this course in particular, and he’s done some research with Indigenous Australians around the emergence of this term, impairment, and how it really didn’t have any meaning for Indigenous Australians.
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LEANNE DOWSE: And part of the problem that that, of course, raises is part of the issue around counting is that– are people able to count themselves? And one of the things that’s really difficult for, I think, many people in the disability area is, do we really want people who have a very different idea of what disability might mean for them in their cultural context. That there’s a real sense that some of these sort of Western, medicalised ideas about what disability means, whether they can ever be– whether we have to include those only, or whether there are other ways of thinking about how we might count disability.
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LOUISA SMITH: Yeah, and which brings us, I guess, to the final point which is around this week also exploring how people with disabilities themselves count themselves in, and when they count themselves out.
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LEANNE DOWSE: And how those big organisations– whether they’re at a national scale, or a global scale– include people with disabilities, in helping them think through how these things are counted.
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LOUISA SMITH: Absolutely, great.

When we start to look at how international organisations attempt to categorise and count impairment and disabled people we can immediately see a range of challenges in doing this.

Some of the things that impact on whether a person will be “counted” are things like the resources countries and governments have to do the counting — this is especially important when we see from the websites we have just looked at that disability is very closely associated with poverty. As well there are cultural issues around what is recognised as disability. In other words, cultural understandings of what disability is and how people are identified are very variable.

Disability too is a very “Western” concept which we have seen defined by organisations and people based in the Global North, like the World Bank, the UN and others. We can also see from some of the information included in the statistics that there are very real differences between different genders and across the life course, which you will explore further in Weeks 4 and 5.

The other problem, of course, is the question of what we are counting — whether it’s a “medical” diagnosis or impairment, or whether it is disability or how people experience their impairment as disabling.

We can see in the websites in the previous step that only certain things get measured. For instance some of the information included here is about “prevalence” (how many people in the population experience disability), but there are other things that also get measured like employment, education, violence and mortality. All these things together make for a really complicated picture of what is important to count. Knowing this, how we can be sure that we can collect reliable information that gives us a comprehensive picture when the world is such a variable place?

You may want to explore what data is available locally to you. We look at this next, and have asked Mel, our learner guide, to do the same activity.

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