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Is Tom Shakespeare disabled, or simply distinct in stature? And if the latter, what makes that distinction important?
For more than a decade, the British sociologist has been a critical voice in the sociology of difference. The son of a physician with achondroplasia (dwarfism) “widely admired as a doctor and as a disabled role model” (Shakespeare, p4),1 Shakespeare fils also has achondroplasia, is the father of children with the condition and, like his father, is professionally successful. As his book’s back cover announces, Shakespeare has “taught and researched sociology at the Universities of Cambridge, Sunderland, Leeds, and Newcastle. He has written and broadcast extensively about disability and genetics, and his co-authored books include The Sexual Politics of Disability, Exploring Disability, and Genetic Politics.”
This volume brings together a decade of papers that, Shakespeare says, “draws on my experience of being a disabled person, and the son, father, husband and friend of disabled people”1 to argue the following thesis: “Disability results from the interplay of individual and contextual factors. In other words, people are disabled by society and by their bodies.”1 That argument, he suggests, has resulted in the “breakdown of my relationship with the mainstream of the UK disabled people’s movement”, whose members advance a model of disability based wholly on social construction. Shakespeare sees that as simplistic and no longer viable despite (or because) of the extraordinary gains made by those seeking parity through advancement of the social construction thesis.1
According to Shakespeare, his former confrères in the British disability movement see as a betrayal his rejection of their argument, one he formerly endorsed, and thus perhaps a repudiation of a generation of admittedly successful activism. To them, in other words, Shakespeare is no longer disabled but disabling, and that judgment must …
Competing interests: The author is a former member of the board of directors of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society and a bioethicist on its Resource Council.