Understanding why and where disabled people feel they belong and don’t belong is the focus of a joint Spaces of Belonging research report launched tonight by the Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA), Imagine Better, and the University of Waikato.
Previous research on disabled people’s experiences of inclusion and exclusion often focuses on whether or not disabled people are physically present in a range of spaces. While increasing numbers of disabled people in the community may suggest that inclusion is being achieved, what it doesn’t show us is: do they feel they involved? Listened to? Valued? It doesn’t get to the heart of the matter - do they feel like they belong?
The research is unique in that it focuses on people’s feelings about their everyday spaces and places.
Researcher Dr Esther Woodbury says, “by centring the concept of ‘belonging’ in our research, we challenge the idea that disabled people being physically present in everyday spaces is noteworthy."In this research we spoke about being in spaces where we are constantly reminded that we are different or unwelcome. We found that many disabled people and parents responded by forming relationships and creating communities where they felt at ease and a sense of ownership."
The topic resonated with research participants. One focus group member said: “But the feeling – I’ve been thinking about this, and belonging’s a really good word for it – ‘cos you just don’t. You just don’t belong when you are there on the outside and you’re not meaningfully participating.”The research is also important as, instead of being based on the intentions and agendas of researchers and funding agencies, it places disabled people’s experiences and knowledge at the centre.
Researcher Dr Carey-Ann Morrison says, “The research is community-driven. Disabled people and their families spoke about issues that were important to them and their lives. We need more research that prioritises hearing directly from disabled people and families”
Dr Woodbury, a disabled researcher and activist, and Dr Morrison, a parent of a young boy with Down syndrome, were able to bring their own experiences to discussions when they spoke to disabled people and whānau about their experiences of belonging - or not - in different places.
“We found that the attitudes of people impacted up on disabled people’s sense of belonging,” Dr Morrison says. “Intentionally created disability spaces often came up as being a place where disabled people and families felt they belonged because they gave people opportunities to identify common experiences, learn new ways of talking about and understanding disability, and share useful information that helped in navigating the experience of disability – but even then because of other factors such as age, race, impairment or gender, some disabled people still felt they did not belong.”
“It’s very clear from our research that the intersection of disability, place and identity matters a great deal to disabled people’s feelings of belonging,” Waikato University’s Professor Johnston says. “We are excited to share the first phase of this research, and we will continue to work with and for disabled people in Aotearoa.”