Law and Disability: Why Getting Disability Law on the University’s Curriculum Matters to Disability Rights

by | Feb 23, 2018

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About Marie Tidball

Dr Marie Tidball is the Co-ordinator of the Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project, a research associate at the Oxford Centre for Criminology and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, and also a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.


Marie Tidball, “Law and Disability: Why Getting Disability Law on the University’s Curriculum Matters to Disability Rights” (OxHRH Blog, 23 February 2018), <> [date of access]

Today marks an important moment for the foregrounding of the rights of people with disabilities at Oxford. It is the inaugural Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Conference. This conference will launch the Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project – established to generate exceptional taught courses and research in these areas. The Project also intends to enable ‘consciousness-raising’ for students and academics working in Law and Policy, and across the Social Sciences, at the University. The Project’s initiatives are designed to provide them with the tools they need to better understand the experiences of people with disabilities and how to think critically about conceptualising our rights and the application of the law to issues which affect us.

Two world-renowned scholars in this area will open our event: Harvard’s Professor Michael Stein and Professor Anna Lawson, Director of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds. Professor Stein, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability (HPOD) will open with his lecture on Why disability law and policy matter: in the academic space and beyond. Since 2004, HPOD has encouraged teaching and scholarship on disability rights, as wells as informing innovative legislative and policy development and providing human rights training to persons with disabilities.

In developing our Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project, we looked to learn from the leadership of HPOD and other prominent Centres on Disability Law Scholarship, including Leeds and NUI Galway, following the publication of a report by the Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group (DSSLG) in January 2017. This report offered guidance on how universities could better support disabled students. The DSSLG’s report highlights that duties under the Equality Act 2010 require adjustments to all university provision including assessment and curriculum design. It emphasises the importance of inclusive pedagogy which embraces the social model of disability and promotes the affirmation model (French and Swain, 2000) of disability “which views disability as a normal part of diversity and views it as a matter of pride and not personal tragedy” (DSSLG, 2017).

Earlier this week, Abby Buttle wrote in this blog series about the social model and how “[o]ne of the major challenges for disabled rights activists has been… the struggle to reclaim the meaning of ‘disability’” from the enduring persistence of the medical model. It is the Centre for Disability Studies at Leeds University which has long been the bastion of countering the narrative that ‘disability is a medical problem, residing in the individual, which must either be treated or managed’ with its academic’s scholarship on the social model. Scholarship emerging from the Leeds Centre has also been at the forefront of including this model in our own UK anti-disability discrimination legislation. As the discipline of Disability Studies moves into its fifth decade, the Centre’s Director, Professor Anna Lawson will be speaking about the relevance of ‘Disability Law’ beyond anti-discrimination rights and across the taxonomy of the legal system.

We reflect this breadth across both days of our Conference – covering topics from the right to high quality adult social care support for working age disabled people and access to justice in the criminal courts to the right to adequate housing and understanding issues around mental capacity and personal finance. Our intention is to showcase the intellectual value of including teaching on disability across legal and policy curricular. This is imperative in the context of the recent concerns raised by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ Inquiry into the treatment of disabled people in the UK (2016). Day One, therefore, looks at the place the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the UK legal system. Panels include academics, disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and public-policy-makers, with our closing plenary on Moving beyond a ‘Human Catastrophe’: what’s next in implementing the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee? Day Two of our conference includes an interactive Workshop on developing an academically prestigious MSc in Disability Law and Policy – the long-term goal of our Oxford Disability Law and Policy Project.

There are over 13 million disabled people in the UK and over 2,000 disabled students at the University of Oxford. Embedding an inclusive approach to disability equality at the University is not only about raising disability awareness and improving access to University services; it involves using the University’s intellectual resources to consider, research and discuss the myriad of intersecting issues relating to disability rights in its academic teaching and publications.

This conference promises to be an important milestone in this significant academic journey.

This is the final post in a series on disability and the law this week, culminating in the Oxford Disability Law and Policy Conference 2018.

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