Review by Timothy Marjoribanks

This review was written by Timothy Marjoribanks, who was the supervisor of Peter Gibilisco’s PhD thesis, which was the basis for the reviewed book:

In his important and timely book Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion. People with different abilities in the 21st Century, Dr. Peter Gibilisco makes an innovative and major contribution to debates around, and our understandings of, politics, disability and social inclusion.

Bringing together theoretical debates around what constitutes a just society, up-to-date analysis of policy and political movements around disability, and important empirical material, including interviews with key thinkers and drawing on his own life experiences, Gibilisco makes a significant case for both the importance of a sociological approach to engaging with disability and for the continuing relevance of a pragmatic social democratic approach as a means of moving towards a socially just and inclusive society.

The book is divided into ten chapters. After an introductory chapter, in which the author sets out the terms of the debates and the central aspects of his arguments, the following three chapters engage with social democracy, neo-liberalism and the third way, both in general terms and in the context of the politics of disability.

Chapter five broadens the theoretical domain of the book by exploring processes associated with globalisation, while chapter six is a vital chapter in which Gibilisco sets out the defining elements of a just society, a society which is inclusive of people with disabilities.

Chapters seven, eight and nine then explore different dimensions of the lives of people with disabilities, focusing on employment, education and service provision. Chapter ten provides a conclusion to the book.

Throughout the book, while the primary focus is on the Australian context, the debates that the author engages with and the examples he uses mean that the book is of relevance well beyond Australia.

A striking feature of the book is the author’s capacity to draw on his own experiences as a person with a severe physical disability, and to consider how his personal experiences connect to broader societal processes and to the experiences of others in society.

Here, indeed, is a significant example of CW Mills’ concept of the sociological imagination in practice, namely, the ability of the author to show, through well developed personal narratives, how the experience of the individual is intimately related to broader social, economic and political processes.

Indeed, one of the highlights of the book is the capacity of the author to interweave theoretical, policy and personal processes together to provide a compelling narrative about the politics of disability in contemporary societies. To give one specific example, the author makes a persuasive argument that societies such as Australia should not be fully satisfied if people with disabilities succeed in higher education.

While such outcomes are of course important, there is an ongoing obligation on society to ensure that structures and opportunities are in place so that individuals who have succeeded in education can continue to engage in a proactive way in society.

In other words, from a policy perspective, measuring the number of enrolments or graduations from education, while important, is not enough in terms of conceptualising policy outcomes. There is a need to consider what happens post-education. As the author’s own experiences show, societies such as Australia fall well short in this regard.

At a structural level, in the chapters on employment, education and service provision, the author shows both how people with disabilities have been able to create opportunities for themselves in these areas, but also shows how they continue to experience systemic discrimination. Here, the author is able to make important connections between policy processes, societal attitudes, and the dominance of the biomedical model in conceptualisations of people with disabilities.

What becomes very clear through the analysis in these chapters is that the situation of people with disabilities within society will not be improved only by changes in attitudes or by the achievements of individuals. There is a need for ongoing structural and societal transformations to engage with structures and processes that marginalise people with disabilities.

Also evident through these chapters is the argument that issues such as disability need to be considered from a relational perspective. That is, there is a need to consider the relations between all members of society, and how those relations impact on the lives of all in society, rather than marginalising or isolating people with disabilities as separate from the rest of society.

What also clearly emerges from these chapters is that it has been the political and social struggles of people with disabilities themselves that has been critical to progressive political and policy changes.

At a theoretical level, the book makes a number of important contributions, providing a clear and well articulated set of propositions relating to dominant political and policy arguments in contemporary capitalist nations. The author is deeply critical of neo-liberalism and of the third way, arguing that they both have contributed to ongoing and rising inequalities.

Influenced by the work of Hugh Stretton, Marta Russell, Frank Stilwell and Moira Raynor, among others, the author proposes that a pragmatic form of social democracy is required to engage with inequality and injustice within society.

While the specific focus here is on inequality and injustice in the context of people with disabilities, it is clear that the arguments put forward resonate more broadly.

For Gibilisco, it is vital to recognise that a socially just society provides both materially and for social participation, and recognises that people exist in relational contexts. This in turn requires a strong state, but also recognition of the role that the market can play when regulated in accord with social need.

In the words of the author (p. 140), "[A] just society is one in which the deprivation of citizens is overcome. A just community does not assume that everyone has the same opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities; instead it ensures they are given every opportunity to do so".

Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion. People with different abilities in the 21st Century, written by an important researcher and public intellectual, makes a significant contribution to our understandings of the interactions between politics, disability and social inclusion.

It is written in a clear and incisive manner, and the publishers have done an excellent job with the quality of the publication. As noted in the book’s cover materials, it will be "of interest to researchers in social and political sciences, and also to people interested in learning more about the experiences and political struggles of people with disabilities in contemporary societies and their influences on policy processes".

I would strongly recommend this book to these audiences, and more generally to readers interested in engaging with an author who is asking critical questions about what constitutes a just society.