“Why do you think you’ve been asked to read this book, a novel, for a social work course?”
Long pause, chewing of lips.
This hesitant start to the conversation about Lori Lansens novel “The Girls” soon unravelled into a much deeper, tangled complex discussion about life, love, loss, continuity, parenting, separation, connection, systems, perspective, insiders/outsiders, sexuality, growing up, location, community, etc., etc. Although I had had the idea of writing about art and social policy for a number of years, this discussion, a couple of years ago during an induction exercise for BA and MA students in social work, was a key turning point.
So, first off, please read this novel. I have bought it for a number of friends and many of them have said they forgot it was a novel. They thought it was real. So for the sheer talent of the writing, please read this novel.
But in keeping with the theme of the blog what did it teach me about social issues? Well, that first brave student who spoke up was right. Whilst the novel is about a number of things that relate to social work and social policy, ostensibly this is a novel about disability focussed on the stories of two women, Rosie and Ruby, who are conjoined twins. So, how does social policy deal with the issue of disability?
If social policy is about understanding problems and solutions, a key tenet of the discipline is that in analysing any policy initiative the aim is to understand what were the values underpinning the piece of guidance or legislation. This is done, in part, in recognition of the idea that how we define a problem defines how we solve it. More formally, this is called looking for the “generative mechanism” (Pawson and Tilly, 1997). Yet social policy does not know how to define the ‘problem’ of disability. This is summed up by Hyde and Shand.
Debates about the meaning of disability in the social science literature typically centre on two definitions. ‘Official’ or ‘medical’ definitions tend to focus on the functional limitations of people with impairments, whereas the disabled people’s movement has defined disability as the social restrictions faced by disabled people in their daily lives (Hyde and Shand, 2013: 201)
So, there is a tension within social policy about whether to locate the problems associated with disability within an individual or within the wider society. Many writers within academia make the point that the individual model (and in particular, a “tragedy” model) of disability remains dominant (See for example, Oliver, 2009 or Swain and French, 2008). This has particular consequences for people with disabilities where their lives and conditions are seen as tragic, a deficit, lesser, a burden leading to charity rather than compassion and institutionalism (and the often attendant institutional abuse) rather than support and autonomy. The social model is a direct challenge to this and to the services offered to people with disabilities. The social model turns the individual model on its head and states that the issue for disabled people is not their impairment, but their treatment and experiences of marginalisation and discrimination. It is a model that was forged out of the experiences of people with disabilities, rather than that of “experts” working in the helping or medical professions. This is its strength, but also the site of resistance to its ideas. If professionals are to accept the social model, they may also need to accept that they are part of the problem. Hannah Morgan (2012) describes this as a “seismic shift”.
This is why definitions and values matter in social policy. How you define the ‘problem’ of disability could define how you intend to solve it. However, the central paradox of the discipline is the knowledge that the way into a problem is not necessarily the way out of it. Spicker’s (2008: 11) useful analogy states:
If you fall down a well, what you know about the principles of gravity will be next to useless and reviewing the process of falling in will probably not help much either.
And this is where reading this book helped me. Rosie and Ruby don’t fall down a well. Whilst acknowledging difficulties, pain and restrictions, they just are. They are not problems. They have problems, some of which are resolved, some of which aren’t. Rosie and Ruby are a part of a number of systems, which sometimes function well, and sometimes struggle. Their lives cannot be understood in isolation from the context in which they live, as conjoined siblings, as members of an immediate family, as members of a wider family, as members of a community, as a part of history. The connection of their condition becomes a metaphor for a wider connection with others. As Rosie says:
Some people think that Ruby and I are cursed to live conjoined. But think of how blessed we are to be connected that we can and did and do cry out. “There’s something wrong! Help!” Imagine if a husband knew the instant his wife stopped loving him and could bring the marriage back to life before it was too late. If a mother could see the second her child took the wrong path and call while he was still close enough to hear. “Come back! You’re going the wrong way!” Ruby and I endure because of our connectedness. Maybe we all do. How can that be a curse?
Their physical inter-dependency throws a light on other forms of inter-dependency that we all lean on to get us through. So, yes read this book. It is life-affirming, charming, difficult and interesting. As Jenny Morris (1992: 162 – 163) once wrote:
I do not think that I, or many other disabled women want to read non-disabled researchers analysing how awful our lives are, because we suffer from two modes of oppression
This book whilst exploring the connected nature of sexism and disablism, does not want you to wallow in misery. However, there is a problem with recommending this book. Lori Lansens is a fabulous writer and it is a pleasure to be allowed to enter the world she creates, but it is imaginary and some could even suggest idealised. When disability becomes a metaphor, it is also difficult to remember it is also a real and embodied experience. There are further questions to be answered:
- Are disabled people the primary story tellers of disability?
- What story does your culture need to tell about disability and why?
- What story of disability do you tell?
- (Titchkosky and Michalko, 2014: 103)
Any comments are more than welcome.
Hyde, M and Shand, R. (2013) “Disability” in Payne, G. (ed.) Social Divisions Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Lansens, L. (2005) The Girls Virago: London
Morris, J. (1992) “Personal and Political: A feminist perspective on researching physical disability” Disability, Handicap and Society 7 (2): 160 – 170
Oliver, M. (2009) Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice [2nd Edition] Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Pawson, R. and Tilley, N. (1997) Realistic Evaluation London: Sage
Spicker, P. (2008) Social Policy: Themes and Approaches [2nd Edition] Bristol: Policy Press
Swain, J. and French, S. (2008) Disability on Equal Terms London: Sage
Titchosky, T and Michalko, R. (2014) “Narrative” in Cameron, C. (ed.) Disability Studies: A Student’s Guide London: Sage