According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 19 percent of the civilian noninstitutionalized population of the United States lives with disability. As baby boomers age and live longer, the percentage continues to increase and is already larger than that of many of the racial and ethnic groups that we as sociologists intensively study. Yet, disability has often been overlooked in scholarship on inequality and intersectionality. This seems inexplicable given the life circumstances of people with disabilities which rival those of the most disadvantaged groups in the United States on almost every measure of well-being. The ASA Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities in Sociology is collaborating with the ASA sections Disability and Society; Medical Sociology; Aging and the Life Course; Race, Gender and Class; Body and Embodiment; and Peace, War and Social Conflict to address this gap. We plan to increase these collaborations and encourage interested scholars to join us.
Over the last several years, with the support of ASA staff member Margaret Weigers Vitullo, the Status Committee has been systematically examining the positionality of disability within sociology while also actively mentoring, supporting, and encouraging disability scholarship and disabled scholars. As part of this effort, Sara Green and Sharon Barnartt co-edited, Sociology Looking at Disability: What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?, Research in Social Science and Disability, Volume 9 (forthcoming). It includes chapters by both junior and senior scholars that address aspects of this history and suggest avenues for future research. The volume demonstrates that disability as a category of analysis and as a social process underlying inequality is poorly represented within mainstream sociology. For instance, disability is entirely missing from highly regarded published histories of our discipline and is poorly represented in elite journals. A literature search in The American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology using “disability,” as a keyword located nine total publications: two in the 1960s, two in the 1970s, two in the 1980s and two more in the 1990s, none in the 2000s and one in 2010.
Given sociological commitments to understanding social inequality, the time to take disability as a social category seriously is now. While much remains to be done to improve the positionality of disabled scholars and disability scholarship in the discipline of sociology globally, some encouraging progress has been made. The formation of the ASA Section on Disability and Society in 2011 was one major progressive step. Its existence guarantees a place for disability scholarship in the annual conference program, thereby increasing the visibility of disability in the discipline. It also provides a formal mechanism for mentoring and networking among disability scholars. With the help of this section, the Status Committee continues to advocate for changes that enhance the inclusion of scholars with disabilities as well as disability scholarship throughout the discipline.
These two bodies, though, can’t do this alone. In fact, doing so would further marginalize disability scholarship and disability scholars. Thus, the Disability and Sociolgy section co-sponsored sessions with Aging and the Life Course and Medical Sociology in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, the section will collaborate with three other sections on co-sponsored sessions that directly address disability as an axis of inequality and intersectionality: 1. Disability as a Dimension of Intersectionality and Inequality (open session co-sponsored by Disability and Society, Race, Gender and Class, and Body and Embodiment); 2. Feminist Disability Studies: Advancing Intersectional Analyses (invited session co-sponsored by Race, Gender and Class, and Disability and Society); and 3. Disability, War/Social Conflict, and Inequality (open session co-sponsored by Disability and Society, and Peace, War and Social Conflict). The Status Committee and the Section on Disability and Society are also negotiating special journal issues focusing on the intersection of disability and other categories of inequality.
We are encouraged by these collaborations and trust that they will advance our discipline from a past in which disability was viewed as an individual tragedy to a future in which disability takes its place as a powerful analytic category. It is clearly worthy of sustained theoretical and empirical interest in its own right and in intersection with other locations of disadvantage and oppression. The ASA Status Committee encourages broad participation among ASA scholars and sections in this collaborative effort, and we hope to see a wide range of submissions to the 2017 co-sponsored sessions.