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International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 14, 159179 (2012)


DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2012.00329.x

Disability as Constructed Difference:


A Literature Review and Research
Agenda for Management and
Organization Studies
ijmr_329

159..179

Jannine Williams and Sharon Mavin


Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8ST, UK
Email: jannine.williams@northumbria.ac.uk; sharon.mavin@northumbria.ac.uk
Disability theory and disabled peoples voices have remained marginal in attempts to
include a wider range of theoretical perspectives and voices in organization studies.
This includes studies of the normative assumptions underpinning socially constructed
categories of difference. This paper addresses this gap by reviewing the literature on
social categories of difference, intersectional studies and studies across human resource
management and diversity literatures. The argument here is that, while research has
begun to move from an individualized discourse of disability, disability remains inadequately theorized as a constructed difference. The paper reviews the disability studies
literature to identify the relevance of conceptualizing disability for work organizations,
problematizes the concepts of disability and impairment and differentiates competing
discourses of disability. The contribution of this paper is threefold. First, it offers an
alternative social interpretation discourse which argues that disability is constructed as
a negated difference through assumed ableism, which is a normative expectation of
non-disability. Second, it presents impairment effects as legitimate organizing requirements rather than individualized problems. The paper argues impairment effects, the
effects of bodily and cognitive variation, have legitimate implications for how disabled
people negotiate organizing contexts. Third, it develops a disability studies lens to
advance theoretical approaches to the study of social categories of difference in the field
of management and organization studies.

Introduction
Organization and management studies (organization
studies) has a history rooted in a concern for scientism, managerialism and improved efficiency and
effectiveness of organizations (sdiken and Leblebici 2001). Over the past 20 years, the field has
grown into one characterized as rhizomatic (Jackson
and Carter 2007), a field of contested concepts and
theories as well as arguments for the establishment of
The authors wish to thank Dr Ron Beadle, Dr Sandra Corlett
and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments
and suggestions.

shared understandings of what constitutes organizational life (Reed 2006). Part of this growth has been
theoretical interest in researching disciplinary practices that shape what (Marsden and Townley 1996),
how and for whom knowledge is produced (Cals
and Smircich 1999; Ferguson 1994; Willmott 1995).
One of the developments within this broadening of
the field has been an epistemologically centred focus
or project. The epistemological project is a term used
to express a concern for the boundaries shaping what
is and is not researched and a critique of what is
taken for granted, or the status quo, in organization
studies (Cals and Smircich 1999, 2006; Ferguson
1994). A focus of the epistemological project

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International Journal of Management Reviews 2012 British Academy of Management and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA
02148, USA

160
is to explore different theoretical voices and
enable organization studies theorists to write from
the margins of the field and of organizations (Cals
and Smircich 1999, p. 650). This is reflected in
calls from Hearn and Parkin (1993) and Harlan
and Robert (1998) for a conceptual and theoretical
engagement with disabled peoples experiences of
management and organization, disability, impairment and ableism (a normative assumption of nondisability). The epistemological project has centred
categories of social relations (gender and race for
example) as an area of concern by drawing on theoretical interest in how such categories are socially
constructed. Differences between incumbents of
social categories are argued to be hierarchically constructed, reproduced and maintained through organizing processes and practices in ways which centre
the requirements of some organizational members
within normative expectations, while marginalizing
the requirements of others. Drawing on de Beauvoir
(1972), those associated with established norms
are thought of as One and those marginalized as
Other. West and Zimmerman (1987) argue that
gender is an organizing principle achieved through
social interaction (doing gender). This was extended
to difference (doing difference) (West and Fenstermaker 1995a,b) to suggest that gender intersects with
other categories of social relations. That is, difference emerges through social processes that construct, reproduce and maintain categories of social
relations and differences between incumbents, which
are then used to assess the incumbents of such
categories (West and Zimmerman 2009).
The epistemological project draws on other
disciplines or fields, or wider social and political
theories, to contribute to such insights (Cals and
Smircich 1999, 2006; Ferguson 1994). Theoretical
(Deetz 1992) and conceptual (Cals and Smircich
2006) lenses from other disciplines contribute to the
ongoing development of organization studies (Polzer
et al. 2009), which broadens the focus (Rhodes
2009) and makes innovative contributions to the field
(Whetten 1989). As Woodhams et al. (2010) outline,
drawing upon wider social theories enables research
to critique established knowledge which silences
some organizational members or ignores particular
issues. Cals (1992) similarly argues that silences
can be constructed through prevailing approaches to
knowledge construction or by a dominating interest
in particular subjects to the exclusion of others.
Foster (2007) suggests that there is a narrow
approach to researching disability across business

J. Williams and S. Mavin


studies, which focuses on a managerial perspective
of managing disabled workers which, it could be
argued, reflects the dominant approach within mainstream management literature upon managerialist
agendas (sdiken and Leblebici 2001). Some progress has been made in analytically centring disability and exploring disabled peoples experiences,
particularly within the human resource management
(HRM) and diversity literatures that have drawn
upon the field of disability studies. This literature has
addressed legislative developments, conceptualizing
and theorizing disability, and has highlighted the
importance of empirical studies of disability and
work. This has contributed to understanding how
disability theorizing can illuminate different experiences of organizing contexts. Disability studies
is therefore understood to offer an established and
developing body of literature to conceptualize and
theorize disability, impairment and ableism as constructed differences in organization studies. Drawing on disability studies would address Harlan and
Roberts (1998) argument that organization studies
has only tangentially connected with the study of
disability, disabled people and the disability studies
field. This is a potentially fruitful interdisciplinary
approach, as organization studies has much to offer
other disciplines studying organization and work,
and disabled peoples access to and progression in
work is a key concern in disability studies.
Despite these insights, the epistemological project literature which conceptualizes, theorizes
and reviews the literature on difference (Connell
2009; Fenstermaker and West 2002; Kitzinger 2009;
Messerschmidt 2009; Risman 2009; Smith 2009;
Vidal-Ortiz 2009; West and Fenstermaker 1995a,b;
West and Zimmerman 1987, 2009) has not engaged
in debating constructions of disability, impairment,
ableism or disabled people as members of a hierarchically ordered category of social relations (de
Beauvoir 1972).
Addressing the gap in conceptualizing and
theorizing disability, impairment and ableism in
organization studies of difference involves extending
the epistemological projects concern to reject the
assumption of the neutral organization to incorporate
how ableness (non-disability) normative assumptions
contribute to both theorization in organization studies
and constructing organizations (Harlan and Robert
1998). This reflects a concern to include disability as
a productive category in theoretical interpretations of
organizations, alongside an exploration of how organizing processes reflect the norms associated with

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International Journal of Management Reviews 2012 British Academy of Management and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Disability as Constructed Difference


those people constructed as able-bodied(Harlan and
Robert 1998; Hearn and Parkin 1993). Exploring how
assumptions of non-disability (or ableism) infuse
organizing processes and are maintained as an organizing norm, while organizing is presumed to be
neutral, remains an under-researched area and offers a
contribution to the field (Mumby 2008).
The contribution of this paper is threefold. First, it
brings together the conceptualization and theorization of difference and the epistemological project
in organization studies to identify a gap around the
conceptualization and theorization of disability
as constructed difference. Second, the paper draws
upon disability, impairment and ableism from
disability studies as key issues in conceptually and
theoretically addressing disability as difference in
organization studies. Third, it develops a conceptualization of disability, impairment and ableism as
contributions for scholars seeking to extend the epistemological project and the conceptual framework
built around the theorization of difference.
This paper is arranged as follows. First, organization studies engagement with categories of difference is reviewed to establish how difference is
explored through the epistemological project, identifying gaps in the conceptualization of disability,
impairment and ableism within these literatures. The
paper then reviews the disability studies literature
and conceptualizations of disability, impairment
and ableism to argue how each of these areas can
address the identified gaps in organization studies.
The penultimate section provides a summary of the
reviewed discourses of disability, impairment and
ableism, and an alternative disability studies lens for
organization studies. The final section draws some
conclusions and outlines some future research implications for the field.

Conceptual and theoretical issues


The construction and maintenance of categories
of difference
The construction of symbolic and social boundaries
of difference to understand relationships among
social groups (Lamont and Molnr 2002) are usually
considered within a binary relation or binary frame
(Butler 1999), for example in relation to gender:
male/female, masculinity/femininity. Gender and
other categories of social relations are argued to be
social constructs, distinctions between people which

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are not natural, normal, or essential to the incumbents in question, but social doing[s], a mechanism
for organizing (West and Zimmerman 2009,
p. 114). We understand these organizing processes to
be the ways in which people act, interact and relate
to each other (Chia 1995). Constructed differences
between incumbents of categories of social relations
are argued to intersect (for example, gender, race
and class) as incumbents are held accountable to
expectations of behaviours and norms associated with
these constructed differences (West and Fenstermaker
1995a,b). Differences are understood to be reproduced through discourse (Butler 1999) to become
established and impact upon incumbents through the
symbolism which contributes to the construction of
social relations (Mumby and Clair 1997).
Such conceptualizations and theorizations focus
upon a critique of the normative social order in the
construction of difference (Moloney and Fenstermaker 2002) and share a concern with the patterns of
social relations which become established as transparent normative expectations over time (Foucault
1978). Overboe (1999) and Simpson and Lewis
(2007) argue that, while they need not always be so,
the differences and distinctions constructed between
people (West and Fenstermaker 2002) within such
categories of social relations are usually understood
within a hierarchical relationship of One and
Other (de Beauvoir 1972). One of the binary pair is
recognized as the norm whose associated attributes
and values establish social norms, to the negation
and marginalization of those people (and their organizing requirements) considered Other (Lamont and
Molnr 2002). This understanding draws attention to
how social relationships work to produce different
outcomes for people thus categorized as Other
(West and Fenstermaker 2002).
Butler (1999) highlights the necessity of critiquing
binary frames, particularly in terms of how their use
contributes to the construction and consolidation of
the very categories that are the subject of critique or
deconstruction. While they are often treated as such,
it is critical to appreciate that social categories are
not self-evident (Alvesson and Billing 2002; Burr
2003); rather, they are established through social
practices (Butler 1999), social constructions reflecting wider social and historical conditions (Alvesson
and Billing 2009).
This reflects a current debate on the value or
otherwise of maintaining a binary understanding of
gender (Baxter and Hughes 2004; Borgerson and
Rehn 2004; Kelan 2010; Knights and Kerfoot 2004;

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Linstead and Brewis 2004; Linstead and Pullen
2008; Pullen and Knights 2007). It is argued that
more inclusive categorizations are required, which
are open to, for example, queering (Bendl 2008),
gender multiplicities (Linstead and Pullen 2008),
doing gender well (Mavin and Grandy 2011) and
(un)doing gender (Butler 2004; Pullen and Knights
2007). Such debates surface the complexity and challenge of researching any category of social relations
that implies or draws upon a binary frame or set of
relations. Set against this is the argument that the
familiarity of binary thinking is a learnt understanding of social relations from everyday interactions
(Baxter and Hughes 2004) which reflects a wider
understanding of engagement with the social world
(Lamont and Molnr 2002). It is argued that the
focus of concern should remain with the binaries
constructed around categories of social relations
and how these are used to naturalize hierarchical
normative categories which subordinate Others
(Borgerson and Rehn 2004). This can support the
undermining of the hierarchical ordering of such
constructed differences through a close reading of
the conditions which contribute to the construction
and maintenance of binaries of social relations
(Knights and Kerfoot 2004). This reflects the view
here that categories of social relations, and constructed and perceived differences between people
perceived to be within these categories, remain
important. These categories of social relations can
shape social interactions and affect access to material
resources (Lamont and Molnr 2002). As such, the
categories become organizing principles and therefore remain a relevant conceptual tool for organization studies (Lamont and Molnr 2002).
Difference explored through the
epistemological project
The epistemological project engages at a metatheoretical level to critique knowledge production
in organization studies (Tsoukas and Knudsen 2003).
Cals and Smircich (1999) suggest that such critiques have emerged through postmodern/structuralist
informed theorizing: for example, feminist poststructuralist or narrative approaches. Epistemological
theorization has also engaged with categories of
social relations as productive analytical approaches
for understanding specific conditions of different
people in the world (Cals and Smircich 1999,
p. 661). Emerging from feminist organizational theorizing (Cals and Smircich 1999), a concern for the

J. Williams and S. Mavin


voices of those people perceived to be different to
normative expectations (Linstead and Thomas 2002)
encapsulates this approach and critiques how categories of social relations such as gender are written
[or not] in organization theory (Cals and Smircich
1999, p. 660). A concern for voice extends beyond
women to those people who are made invisible
in/through organizing and drawing upon their experiences to develop insights for the field (Cals and
Smircich 2006, p. 286).
Ferguson (1994, p 89) argues the complexity and
elusive nature of the locations from which organizational studies issue reflects an interpretive domain
. . . [which] is implicitly male/masculine, white/
western and bourgeois/managerial. Yet these are not
attached to social locations in any obvious ways;
instead, they mark a set of hermeneutic spaces,
linguistic practices and political agendas that are
coded in decipherable ways by gender, race and
class (Ferguson 1994, p. 90). Ferguson (1994) suggests that taking forward this interest in theoretically
and organizationally marginalized people requires
working with their voices and perspectives.
However, within the epistemological project critiquing knowledge production, the voices of disabled
people are largely absent, as is the conceptualization
and theorization of disability as a marginalized place
within a category of social relations and a consequence of perceived difference. Disability studies
has not been drawn upon to address this gap, despite
the argument of Hearn and Parkin (1993) and Harlan
and Robert (1998) that the field has much to offer
organization studies and the progress made, for
example, in the HRM and diversity literatures. This
is in spite of the recognition that drawing upon other
disciplines, fields or wider social and political theories contributes to organization studies engaged
in such critique (Cals and Smircich 1999, 2006;
Ferguson 1994) and to understanding different subject positions (Mumby 2008).
The gender and organization literature that
engages with feminist theories offers insights into
the potential of such theoretical lenses to understand difference and different experiences. Gherardis (2003) review of feminist theory in organization
studies outlines how critiques of gender as a category
of social relations and as a conceptual and theoretical
lens have been used across a range of research programmes, enriching organization studies for scholars
concerned with the politics of knowledge production. Contributions from gender research include
gendering organizational analysis to emphasize the

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Disability as Constructed Difference


artificial way in which organizations are constructed,
which contributes to making women visible as
research subjects (Alvesson and Billing 2009).
An additional focus has been upon deconstructing
organization studies classic texts to reinterpret the
field and to change how theorists think about and
teach such classic texts (Cals and Smircich 1992).
Gender as a category of social relations is therefore
recognized to be important for organizational analyses and a central analytical category for organization studies (Cals and Smircich 2006, p. 284).
Gherardis (2003) review highlights how the concept
of gender has enabled the investigation of social
realities that previously had not informed the field.
Race, as another category of social relations, has
made some limited progress in organization studies
since Nkomo (1992, p. 487) argued that it was
a necessary and productive analytical category
to theorize about organizations. However, race is
argued to require further development (Cox 2004;
Mills et al. 2005). An analysis of organizational
behaviour literature by Cox and Nkomo (1990) highlighted a decline of research on race and ethnicity
between the 1970s and the late 1980s. During this
period, half the race-related research focused primarily upon equal opportunities or hiring practices, with
much of the remaining research focusing on narrower topics of inquiry such as motivation or performance evaluations (Cox and Nkomo 1990). Mills
et al.s (2005) analysis of organization studies textbooks between 1959 and 1996 reflects a similar lack
of emphasis on race and ethnicity as foci of interest,
noting only seven texts that dealt substantially with
these issues. Cox (2004) has subsequently argued
that race and ethnicity are perceived to be a concern
for minority scholars rather than a concern for organizational analysis more widely. Mumby (2008) surmises that there continues to be a lack of research on
race among critical studies of organization.
Mumby (2008) suggests there is a similar lack of
research or theory on able-bodiedness as a normative
assumption constructed through organizing processes. Mumby (2008) highlights a theoretical gap on
disability and ableism in organization studies alongside a lack of focus upon disabled people as members
of a hierarchical category of social relations. This is
despite the concern to broaden organization studies
to include marginalized voices (Cals and Smircich
1999) and the suggestion that the initial focus upon
gender, race and class could be extended to other
categories of social relations (Cals and Smircich
1999, 2006; Ferguson 1994).

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Recent reviews of literature in this journal
have begun to contribute to research on difference.
For example, age discrimination (Wood et al. 2008),
age and innovation (Frosch 2011), top team diversity (Nielsen 2010), sexual harassment (McDonald
2011), role models for senior women (Sealy and
Singh 2010) and explorations of the maternal body
(Gatrell 2011). However, disability, impairment or
ableism has not featured as a primary concern within
these reviews. Importantly for this review, zbilgin
et al. (2011) review of worklife balance identifies
disability and disabled peoples experiences as a
gap in current research, while also suggesting the
theoretical potential of intersectional studies.
Intersectionality is the study of how social categories such as race, class and gender intersect to shape
peoples experiences (Acker 2006; Crenshaw 1989,
1997; Holvino 2010; McCall 2005). Combined with
other studies of difference, this theoretical perspective offers an opportunity to address the silence on
disabled people in conceptualizations and theorizations of difference in organization studies. However,
while some progress has been made in other disciplines, for example in geography through Valentines
(2007) exploration of gender and deaf peoples
experiences, the organization studies intersectional
literature demonstrates a silence on conceptualizing
and theorizing disability, impairment and ableism.
Acker (2006) acknowledges disability, yet argues
that it is less of a concern in intersectional studies
of inequality. Ackers (2006) conceptualization of
inequality regimes argues that the meanings, processes and practices in organizations which contribute to inequality are connected to the wider social,
historical and political context. This may have
offered a way of exploring how disability, impairment and ableism have shaped disabled organizational members experiences. However, Acker (2006,
p. 445) conceptualizes disability in terms of physical inabilities, positioned as a social difference not
as thoroughly embedded in organizing processes as
are gender, race and class. Ackers (2006, p. 445)
approach to disability as physical disabilities and
physical inabilities suggests an individualized and
essentialized conception of disability. Subsequent
studies of intersectionality in organization studies
have maintained a silence on disability, impairment and ableism, focusing instead, for example, on
addressing intersections of religion, gender and ethnicity (Essers and Benschop 2009), race, gender and
class (Holvino 2010) and ethnicity, gender and religion (Healy et al. 2011).

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This lack of progress in organization studies
conceptualizing and theorizing of disability, impairment and ableism suggests that Harlan and Roberts
(1998) argument for the integration of disability to
the study of organizations has not progressed. Harlan
and Roberts (1998) view reiterates Hearn and Parkins (1993) call for the development of disability as
a productive approach to analyse organizations and
a critique of how organizing norms are established
around those organizational members constructed as
able-bodied in order to develop theory. Through such
theoretical concerns, the marginalization of disability to the private, individual sphere can be challenged
(Hearn and Parkin 1993). Here, disability is understood to emerge through a category of social relations in relation to non-disability, rather than being
perceived as an essentialized (Swain et al. 2003),
individualized problem (Oliver 1990) and negative
ontology (Campbell 2005, 2009b; Hughes 2007).
Such an approach recognizes that disability is
always present, constructed as Other, in talk of
normalcy, normality and how things are (Campbell
2005; Hughes 2007).
Disability in HRM and diversity debates
Beyond the meta-theoretical literature explicitly
exploring the construction of difference and critiques
of categories of social relations, HRM and diversityrelated literatures have explored disability. Debates
on HRM have drawn upon a disability studies social
model interpretation of disability to call for disability discrimination legislation (Barnes 1992) and
an exploration of the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) upon employer practices
(Woodhams and Corby 2007). Foster (2007) considered legal entitlement and disabled workers negotiations for reasonable adjustments and later the role of
union offices in enabling such negotiations (Foster
and Fosh 2010). However, Riach and Loretto (2009)
suggest the emphasis in employment-related studies
remains an individual or medicalized understanding of disability. This interpretation is rejected by
disability studies informed research and policy.
Equality and diversity-related studies have
explored various aspects of disabled peoples experiences. These range from disabled peoples experiences of the built environment (Newton et al. 2007)
to a focus on understanding class through gender,
disability and age (Zanoni 2011). Conceptually,
disability has been explored in relation to equality
and diversity theorizations. Woodhams and Danieli

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(2000) argued that disability falls between groupbased managing equality approaches premised on
shared group requirements and managing diversity
approaches based on individual solutions. It is
argued that these categories do not reflect the heterogeneity of disabled people or their experiences and
that ableism (assumed non-disability) is inherent
in these perspectives (Thanem 2008). In response,
Thanem (2008) argues for an embodied understanding of disability within diversity management
research and for the inclusion of impairment
in debates on disabled peoples experiences of
organization in diversity management research.
While Thanem (2008) does not address constructions
of disability in terms of the wider epistemological
project in organization studies, he does identify the
need for further research into how ableism contributes to the exclusion of disability. However, the definition of disability proposed by Thanem (2008) is
one which suggests that disability remains a suffered
problem.
Reviewing the field, Zanoni et al. (2010) argue that,
while the diversity and diversity management literatures have made contributions to understanding
difference, this continues to be difference from an
assumed and maintained normative expectation of a
western, white, middle-class, non-disabled, heterosexual male. The critical diversity literature, argued to
be literature drawing upon post-structuralism, discourse analysis, cultural studies, post-colonialism
institutional theory and labour process theory, has
begun to challenge this assumption (Zanoni et al.
2010). However, the review for this paper could not
locate any substantive inquiry which specifically
theorized or conceptualized disability and impairment in relation to ableism in wider debates and
constructions of difference through a meta-theoretical
level analysis of organization studies.
Disability and work
To inform this paper, the literature outside organization studies on disability, organizations and work
was reviewed. The review identified, as did Hirst
et al.s (2004) review, that an individual interpretation
of disability is the dominant perspective in such
studies, while more recent disability studies influenced literature has drawn predominantly upon social
model interpretations. Roulstone et al. (2003) suggest
that research including disabled peoples experiences
of work has historically drawn upon a medical, individualized understanding of disability, while social

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Disability as Constructed Difference


model research informed by disability studies has
emphasized specific professions or technology.
Roulstones (1998a,b) work on new technology
and review of literature on disability and work
identifies the impact of a medicalized discourse and
rehabilitative focus within early research. Roulstone
(1998a,b) argues that this emphasizes the correction
of the disabled person/body, rather than changes
to the work context, which excludes rather than
includes the requirements of disabled people. Such
an individualized emphasis fails to recognize and
alter limiting work practices, and negatively affects
disabled peoples participation in work organizations. This research suggests that, in many ways,
the effects of standardized work processes design
disabled people out of work (Roulstone 1998a,b)
through assumptions based around the capacities of
an average (non-disabled) worker (Abberley 2002).
Additionally, increased performativity and work
intensification contribute to the marginalization of
disabled people (Barnes and Roulstone 2005). Such
assumptions can be understood as informing organizing norms, which regulate work processes in ways
that exclude those who do not conform to inherent
assumptions that workers are male, white and nondisabled (Harlan and Robert 1998; Vernon 1998).
Work organizations are understood to reflect variations on the theme of ableness which interpret disabled people against normative assumptions which
exclude their organizing requirements (Harlan
and Robert 1998, p. 427). Harlan and Robert (1998)
argue that organizations should therefore be appreciated as value-laden and call for a critique of ableness
normative assumptions. This review suggests that,
despite research into work and disability and the
importance of work for disabled people, the organization of work remains starkly unequal (Barnes
2000), requiring a further conceptualization and
theorization of disability, impairment and ableism
as productive categories of analysis for organization
studies.
Addressing the gap: incorporating disability into
conceptualizations of difference
Despite the rich theorization and conceptualization
of disability available from the disability studies
literature (as used in the HRM and diversity literatures), the organization studies literature lacks substantive engagement with disability, impairment,
ableism or disabled people in critiques of social relations, difference or knowledge production beyond the

165
preliminary suggestions of Hearn and Parkin (1993)
and Harlan and Robert (1998). This silence sustains a
position where the social reality of disabled people
remains theoretically invisible, as authors have similarly argued for gender (Cals 1992; Gherardi 2003).
Addressing this gap requires an approach that
enables the exploration of disability and impairment as constructed difference in relation to ableism.
This reflects Olivers (1990) argument that disability
needs to be problematized rather than assumed to be
a stable category.
Early disability studies scholars (Oliver 1990)
have sought a political and strategic change (Hardy
et al. 2001) in disability discourses across academic
disciplines and professional practices, away from
what is conceptualized as a dominant individual
discourse on disability towards a social discourse.
More recently, this field has also begun to explore
the relationship between disability and impairment
and surfacing ableism, arguing that the latter is a
normative expectation against which all are assessed
(Campbell 2009b; Hughes 2007). This paper therefore draws upon the disability studies literature to
develop a theoretical lens to address the gap in conceptualizing and theorizing disability, impairment
and ableism and to contribute to the epistemological
project and studies of difference in organization
studies.

Disability, impairment and ableism


from disability studies
Individual interpretation: a dominant discourse
of disability
Prior to the development of the disability studies
field, Barnes (2004, p. 28) suggests the emphasis
across the academy had been to focus on disability as
an ascribed social deviance. Barnes (2004) argues
that the way in which the work of Goffman (1968)
has been adopted is an important example of this, as
it has been interpreted and applied in research which
emphasizes disabled peoples traits and characteristics (Thanem 2008), disability as a spoiled identity,
or highlighting how such identities are perceived or
managed by other people (Gray 2009). Disability is
thus located as a result of individual deficit (Oliver
1983). The individual deficit explanation is inextricably connected to a pervasive medical ideology that
locates disability as a consequence of impairment
(Oliver 1990). This maintains that the problem of

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disability is located within the impaired individual, a
consequence of biological or functional limitations
(and subsequent incapacity), which requires medical
diagnosis and treatment or rehabilitation to achieve
normative, non-disabled standards. That is to operate
within the social world to the ideal of non-disability
(French 2001).
Disability is understood as a social problem, a
form of social invalidation and an undesirable state to
be overcome (Hughes 2002, 2007). Social organization is premised upon non-disability as a normative standard against which all people are assessed,
assumed to assess themselves and expected to strive
to achieve (Campbell 2009b; Hughes 2007). It is
the individual impaired person who is lacking and
expected to conform to being normal (Oliver 2009),
while the social context is regarded as unproblematic (Swain et al. 2003). French (2001) suggests the
medical approach is a derivative of the individual
model, underpinned by the tragedy model of disability (Oliver 1990), which positions disability as
a terrible issue for the afflicted individual (Oliver
1996). Disability here constitutes an inherently
negative ontology (Campbell 2005, p. 109, emphasis
in original). The emphasis emerging from these constructions of disability is towards social policies to
compensate people with impairments, rather than
enabling their full inclusion in social life.
It is argued that the strength of these interpretations
of disability has led to disability being perceived as an
unproblematic analytic category (Oliver 1986). The
individual interpretation has become the dominant
discourse informing social responses and understandings of disability in the western world. This individual
interpretation of disability is widely infused (Swain
and French 2000) inside and outside academe in
sociological accounts (Shakespeare 2006), research
agendas (Oliver 1986), social policy (Oliver 1986)
and media and cultural representations of disabled
people (Shakespeare 1999). The individual interpretation remains significant for disabled people (Shah
2005) and their organizational experiences, shaping expectations, perceptions of and attitudes towards
disabled people, as they continue to be assessed
against conceptions of a non-disabled normality.
The individual interpretation of disability is also
pertinent to organization studies theorizing for the
epistemological project and studies of difference,
as it contributes to understanding the silence on disability. As Ferguson (1994) argues, the interpretive
domain of organization studies is coded in ways that
are not necessarily attached to, yet are decipherable

J. Williams and S. Mavin


through, particular social locations. If disability,
and by extension impairment, are not understood as
constructions within a category of social relations
with non-disability, they remain essentialized individual problems. Subsequently, the (marginalized)
subject position (Mumby 2008) of disabled people
is left unproblematized, the potential to understand
how disability and impairment are constructed
differences and the potential for a politicizing of
knowledge production on disability are reduced.
Conceptualizing the individual interpretation discourse is a step towards raising the visibility of the
constructed nature of the social reality of disabled
people.
The disability studies field names and refutes the
dominant individual discourse of disability, initially
developing the social model of disability (social
model) as an alternative conceptualization and discourse premised upon a socio-political explanation
of disability. It is to this explanation of disability that
the paper now turns.
Social model of disability: an alternative
disability discourse
The development of the UK disability studies field
was closely connected to the UK-based Disabled
Peoples Movement (DPM). The DPM was an important step in redefining and politicizing disability
(Leach 1996), which critiqued individual interpretations of disability and focused on raising the voices
of disabled people to challenge their exclusion from
mainstream society (Germon 1998). This emphasis
upon surfacing and making visible the voices of disabled people resonates from early disability studies
research in the 1980s (such as Oliver 1983) through
to current projects (for example, Tanenbaum 2009).
Influenced by the 1976 publication of Fundamental Principles of Disability by the Union of the Physically Impaired against Segregation (UPIAS) (Barnes
2003), the UK disability studies field called for a
social understanding of disability which separated
experiences of impairment from experiences of
disability:
we define impairment as lacking part of or all of a
limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and disability as the disadvantage
or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary
social organisation which takes no or little account
of people who have physical impairments and thus
excludes them from participation in the mainstream
of social activities. (UPIAS 1976, p. 14)

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Disability as Constructed Difference


Within this conceptualization, impairment is
objectively maintained as a biological characteristic
(Hughes 2002) as expressed within the individual
model, while disability is re-categorized as the
outcome of social processes (Swain et al. 2003) and
negative social responses to people with impairments as different from normative expectations.
UPIAS (1976) highlighted exclusion from mainstream society, social activities and employment as
central issues which impoverish disabled peoples
life chances. Within the disability studies field,
the principles of UPIAS (1976), which initially
focused on physical impairment, were adapted
to include other impairment types, and a social
model understanding of disability was developed.
This offered an explanatory framework for disabled
people and researchers to draw upon to understand
experiences of disability. The social model conceptualizes disability as contain[ing] three elements:
(i) the presence of an impairment; (ii) the experience of externally imposed restrictions; (iii) selfidentification as a disabled person (Oliver 1996,
p. 5). Disability studies therefore takes disability
seriously as an analytical category (Oliver 1990)
to address a concern for disabled peoples social
inclusion through praxis (Abberley 1987; Goodley
and Van Hove 2005; Oliver 1996; Roulstone
1998a). Inclusion requires a move away from a
silence on disability (Swain and Cook 2001) as a
constructed difference and from the assumption
of non-disability as an unquestioned organizing
principle. Impairment is argued to be both structurally produced, as a consequence of (or a lack of)
medical care, class and poverty, and culturally
produced, as a consequence of the individual interpretation of disability which permeates social
responses to disabled people (Oliver 1990). While
defining impairment as a biological or functional
limitation and disability as a social construction, the
social model sustains a bifurcation between the two
and is committed to directing research away from
focusing on the individual or impairment (Hughes
2007).
Oliver (1983) argues a shift away from focusing
on the individual requires an emphasis upon how
physical, cultural and social environments exclude
or disadvantage disabled people, a view that has
endured in social model influenced research
(Barnes 2003). Social model approaches understand
disabled people as oppressed, conceptually aligning
disablism (Abberley 1987; Oliver 1990) with prejudice or discrimination (Thomas 2004a) and empha-

167
sizing collective experiences of oppression, rather
than personal experiences or experiences of impairment (Oliver 1996). This approach can be understood to be drawing upon a materialist orientation
(Corker 1999b; Goodley 2001), reflected in a collective and economic emphasis which has informed
subsequent research agendas (Thomas 2007). As
Thomas (2006) argues, materialist approaches
are the founding force of disability studies in the
UK, anchoring the discipline and the social model
retheorization of disability away from individual
interpretations. As such, an analysis of experiences
of impairment, connections between impairment
and forms of social organization which disable, or a
concern for how disability is discursively socially
constructed (Thomas 1999), was not a main focus
of first-wave social model orientated researchers
(Barnes 1998).
The social model can accordingly be understood as offering a socio-political, rather than individual deficit explanation for disability (Tregaskis
2004), from a materialist informed perspective,
which bifurcates impairment and disability and
which emphasizes collective over individual experiences. The issue of how normality is discursively
constructed, reproduced and maintained received
little attention until scholars such as Corker
(1999a,b) expressed a concern to explore the discourses that shape disabled peoples experiences.
Yet, as Shakespeare (2006) highlights, the individual interpretation and social model discourses
outlined are dominant understandings of disability
within the UK disability studies field. They remain
important to disabled people in how they are
drawn upon (Corker 1999a,b; Shah 2005; Thomas
2004a,b) in both the conceptualization and theorization of disability.
Overall, the social model can be understood to be
invaluable in offering an alternative discourse on disability and surfacing the importance of the material
in disabled peoples experiences. However, the social
model emphasis upon structural and economic determinants of disability suggests that more recent arguments for additional social perspectives on disability
may enhance the potential of a disability studies lens
for organization studies. This would create space to
explore disability within a category of social relations with non-disability; to explore the discursive
construction of non-disability as a normative expectation and experiences of impairment that are not
emphasized in social model research, to which the
review now turns.

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Paradigmatic divergence and convergence:
new disability discourses and a social
interpretation of disability
The social model has played an important role
in enabling disabled people to challenge dominant
discourses on disability. However, Corker (1999a)
suggests its dominance has limited explorations of
disabled peoples experiences, which Thomas (1999)
sees as a consequence of a strong emphasis upon
structural barriers. Goodley and Lawthom (2005),
Meekosha (2004), Gabel and Peters (2004) and
Shakespeare (2006), among others, argue for the
recognition of multiple strands within disability
studies supporting the development of a wider
theorization of disability and a paradigm shift. This
argument constructs conceptual and theoretical
space to explore experiences, impairment and the
role of discourse in constructing disability through
social processes (Meekosha 2004). As Armer (2004)
suggests, disability theory is developed incrementally, drawing upon different critical approaches
(Danieli and Woodhams 2005) or differing paradigmatic perspectives to illuminate different aspects
of disabled peoples experiences (Simmons et al.
2008). This enables researchers to build new insights
and understanding reflexively (Alvesson et al. 2008)
and appreciates that social model informed research,
which was central to conceptualizing disability
beyond an individualized discourse, continues to
make a contribution, albeit one that is focused upon
a particular range of interests. For Gabel (2005),
the range of paradigmatic approaches to disability
in disability studies literature facilitates thinking in
terms of a social interpretation, rather than model, of
disability as a way of encompassing broader theoretical approaches.
A social interpretation of disability maintains a
concern for the legitimacy of disabled peoples different requirements in how the social world is organized (Overboe 1999), without negation or perceiving these as a deficit (Gray 2009). A widening of
theoretical perspectives and increased interest in
the contribution of postmodern theories (Simmons
et al. 2008), critical theory and post-structuralist
influenced research (Goodley, D. Critical disability
studies. Personal e-mail communication, 16 April
2009; Goodley 2009) has begun to contribute to this
agenda. It has done this by shifting focus solely from
disability as deficit (individual interpretation) or disablism (social model) to, for example, social interaction (Simmons et al. 2008) and ableism (Campbell

J. Williams and S. Mavin


2009a,b). This is usually referred to as critical disability studies, to reflect the shift in theoretical interests (Goodley, D. Critical disability studies. Personal
e-mail communication, 16 April 2009), a similar
shift to critical diversity studies (Zanoni et al. 2010).
The emphasis in this paper is upon contributing to
the epistemological project and studies of difference
in organization studies through disability theorizing
which maintains not only the concern for discourses
of disability (as outlined above), but also for the
inclusion of ableism, experience and impairment,
each of which is reviewed in turn below.
The place of experience in disability theorizing
Feminist theory has conceptually contributed to
disability studies by surfacing the importance of
understanding disability in relation to non-disability
(an organizing norm) and the importance of experience and experiences of impairment for theory
development.
Part of the feminist critique of both disability
studies and feminist theorizing was to argue for recognition that the concept of a binary distinction that
places women and men in a category of social relations could be applied to disabled people in relation
to non-disabled people (Morris 1993a). The feminist
disability studies extension of One/Other in relation to disability/non-disability reflected de Beauvoirs (1972) view that there are analogies between
men and women as One/Other and categories of
social relations within other social groups (Simons
2000). As Morris (1993a) argued, disabled people are
positioned as Other through non-disability, which
occupies the position of One. Non-disability is
treated as both the positive and the universal experience; while the place of disabled people represents
only the negative, defined by limiting criteria,
without reciprocity (Morris 1993a, p. 67). Disability stands alone as Other, without an acknowledgement or critique of how disability is constructed
through assumptions of non-disability as an organizing norm. This argument confirms that theorizing
within disability studies is underpinned by an appreciation of how disability is constructed within
a binary frame (Butler 1999) with non-disability,
facilitating a more relational understanding.
This reflects Campbells (2009b, p. 6) argument
that disability/non-disability are not discrete, selfevident and fixed, rather the binary dynamic established between disabled and non-disabled people
is co-relationally constitutive. This brings non-

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Disability as Constructed Difference


disability into the research frame, contributing to
disability theorizing as an outcome of the naturalized
universal and neutral status of non-disability which,
while inaugurated as the norm (Campbell 2009b),
remains invisible and disconnected from constructions of disability in much disability focused
research.
Feminist disability studies theorists also connected
disability studies and feminist theory to address
the exclusion of experience within disability studies
research (Begum 1992; Crow 1996; French 1993;
Morris 1991, 1993a,b, 1996; Thomas 1999, 2001).
This literature critiques the assumption that mens
experiences are representative of all disabled people
(Morris 1993b). It is argued that this malestream
emphasis fails to account fully for disabled peoples
experiences, particularly by maintaining a public/
private divide in disability theorizing which separates experiences of disability from impairment
(Fawcett 2000; Morris 1993a; Thomas 1999).
However, while feminist disability studies scholars
have made progress in bringing experiences and the
impaired body to attention, there is also a criticism
of the wider feminist literature for failing to engage
ontologically with disability and disabled people
from a social perspective.
Morris (1991, 1993a,b) was an early critic of feminist theorizing which failed to account for disability
or disabled people when conceptualizing social divisions. More recently, Thomas (2006) critiqued feminist and gender studies, warning against disability
only being nominally included in gender debates and
critiquing feminist analysis for lacking a sustained
analysis of disability. Such limited engagement may
be partially explained by feminist research incorporating a wide range of orientations (Tong 1989),
some of which may be less inclined to engage critically with disability ontology. One example includes
liberal feminist agendas, which maintain an essentialized understanding of gender and gender as an
unproblematic category (Alvesson and Billing 2009;
Simpson and Lewis 2005). Such perspectives maintain the notion of organizations as gender neutral and
may do the same with disability.
Hughes (1999, 2002, 2007) and Shakespeares
(1996) work resurfaces the debate over the ontological status of impairment and how a non-impairment
perspective and a non-disabled subject are maintained unproblematically as the ideal through prevailing social norms (Campbell 2009b; Hughes 2007;
Lawthom and Goodley 2006; Shakespeare 1996).
Nevertheless, Vehmas (2004, p. 213) conceptual

169
review of disability argues that it is through social
interaction that disability takes place, as people who
position themselves as non-disabled define dichotomically, in relation to themselves, persons differing
from them as disabled. The defining of disability
thus affirms non-disability as the obverse and locates
impairment with disability to a marginalized position
in relation to non-disability. Hughes (1999) argues
that non-disability is socially positioned as neutral or
value-free, yet through the invalidation or Othering
of impairment-related ways of organizing, and therefore disabled people, non-disability can be recognized as partial and value-laden.
To further develop organization studies, feminist
inspired and difference focused research requires
a stronger connection with a social interpretation of
disability: one which engages with an understanding
of how disability is constructed in relation to nondisability and the consequences of this for the ontological place of impairment and disabled peoples
experiences of organizing. This would, first, reflect
the growing critique in disability studies both from
feminist and post-structuralist informed researchers
who argue that the ontological place of impairment is
shaped by the hierarchical positioning of the nondisabled subject within normative expectations.
Second, it would reflect the current richness of organization studies theorizing and problematization of
hierarchical binaries for other categories of social
relations (such as gender and race) and studies of
difference (as reviewed earlier). In addition, organization studies research should engage with the
impaired body and experiences of organizing to
continue to challenge the public/private divide on
disability and impairment. Addressing these issues
can further contribute to addressing the silence on
disability in the epistemological project literature, to
critiques of the construction of difference and to
essentialist views of disability reflected in the intersectional studies literature. This can be further
enriched by engaging with the debates in disability
studies on the ontological place of impairment discussed below.
The ontological position of impairment in
disability studies
Disability studies has always been concerned to
start with disabled peoples experiences (French and
Swain 2006; Goodley and Lawthom 2005; Thomas
1999), although it was stories of disablement
(oppression) rather than stories of impairment that

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170
had a more comfortable place within the field. Theorists have begun to bring experiences and perceptions
of impairment into disability studies research,
yet Roulstone et al. (2003) suggest that impairment
remains under-theorized in the field. Arguments for
inclusion of experiences of impairment are addressed
through disability studies research which recognizes
that impairment is a social as well as a subjective
experience (Goodley 2001). From this perspective,
experiences and effects of impairment contribute to
knowledge production and inform understanding of
disabled people (Campbell 2009b; Hughes 2007;
Oliver 1983, 1990, 1996; Thomas 2007). It is therefore relevant for this review to identify an appropriate approach through which impairment can be
incorporated into disability theorizing. Thomass
(1999, 2004b, 2007) term impairment effects is
identified as a means of bringing experiences of
impairment into the analysis of disabled peoples
experiences. However, before moving on to outline
the proposed approach to incorporating impairment
in a social interpretation of disability, it is relevant to
review the wider and current disability studies debate
on the ontological position of impairment.

J. Williams and S. Mavin


2002), yet it remains theoretically underdeveloped
(Hughes and Paterson 1997).
Within disability studies, there is a concern that
bringing the body into accounts of disability may
be a threat by invoking an individual interpretation (Thomas 2007). However, as Cockburn (1991)
and Hughes (2007) note, asserting a bodily reality,
making bodies visible and re-inscribing them, is a
crucial aspect of rejecting the disembodied ideal that
constructs and negates disabled peoples organizing
requirements. Impairment must be rescued from a
pre-social status as a biological given (Goodley and
Lawthom 2005) to bring the body into theorizing
about disability and disabled peoples experiences
(Hughes and Paterson 1997). Being comfortable with
bodily processes as a legitimate aspect of the social
world and an expectation that disabled people should
be supported in their project of being bodily present,
acknowledged, accommodated and enabled . . . in
the workplace and in organizational life (Cockburn
1991, p. 212) is an important concern in the critique
of conceptions of impairment and of non-disabled
orientated organizing processes. To challenge the
exclusion of disabled people requires engaging in
some way with these norms (Hughes 2002).

Impairment and disability studies


While the social model omits impairment
(Hughes 2007), the ontological place of impairment
is an increasingly central concern (Hughes 2007).
It is important in shaping interpretations, negative
assumptions and responses to disabled people as
Other (Hughes and Paterson 1997). However the
place of impairment in disability studies remains
problematic (Hughes 2007).
Impairment is central to disabled peoples relationships with others (Scott-Hill 2004) and disabled
peoples experiences of the social world (Hughes
2007). As Campbell (2009b, p. 118) argues, experiencing the social world as a disabled person (living
with impairment and its effects) can imbricate
every aspect of action, perception, occurrence and
knowing. Epistemological assumptions of the nature
of impairment are therefore an important aspect
of a social interpretation of disability. This requires
a move away from understanding impairment as a
biological given, towards an understanding of the
social construction of impairment (Goodley 2001).
In this vein, Hughes and Paterson (1997) suggest that
impairment is both experienced and discursively
constructed. This reflects how disabled people
account for the importance of impairment (Hughes

Impairment effects
Thomas (2007, p. 136, emphasis in original) suggests that engaging with impairment can be achieved
through the concept of impairment effects which
enables researchers to consider the impact of
bodily variations designated impairments rather
than . . . those [barriers] imposed upon people
because they have designated impairments. This
concept acknowledges that impairments do have a
direct impact upon peoples social lives. However,
these are socially contingent; they require impairment to be designated as such, and it is a combination
of the bodily (or cognitive) variation and the social
context that contributes to disabled peoples experiences of impairment effects. Rather than attempting
to separate impairment and disability in disabled
peoples experiences, Thomas (2007) encourages an
appreciation of the complexity of how impairment
effects and social responses to disabled people interlock (Thomas 2004b), despite their separation in
social model influenced research for analytical purposes. However, Thomass (2007) emphasis in developing impairment effects is to bring impairment into
disability studies to critique the internal oppression
that disabled people experience from the social

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Disability as Constructed Difference


responses they receive, an approach which emphasizes structural constraint. This is not the focus
here. This paper emphasizes an aspect of the debate
within disability studies which is absent in Thomass
(1999, 2004b, 2007) conceptualization of impairment effects: that is, disabled peoples agency
(Corker 1999a; Corker and Shakespeare 2002; Fisher
2007; Shah 2005), how they respond to impairment
effects, and how this may contribute to shaping their
requirements, expectations and responses to social
contexts. This requires an approach acknowledging that disabled people are active in negotiating
their social contexts (Corker 1999b), while also constrained by social expectations or arrangements.
Impairment effects as a concept is therefore understood and taken forward in this paper to focus upon
the ways in which disabled people account for the
effects of impairment upon their experiences and
what they expect of the organizing contexts they
encounter. This appreciates that disabled people may
seek to include or negate impairment effects when
they talk of their experiences or expectations of
organizing processes.
The debate here contributes two further concerns
to the disability studies lens which this paper develops for organization studies: first, the inclusion of
experiences of impairment as a legitimate aspect of
research on disability; second, the need to acknowledge and include the impact of impairment effects
upon the organizing requirements of disabled people.
Impairment effects can be a conceptual approach
through which organization studies research engages
with and incorporates the impaired body (Cockburn
1991; Hughes 2007). This can facilitate a better
understanding of the implications of an impaired
bodily presence for disabled peoples experiences,
and expectations, of organizing processes and
practices, which could enrich organization studies
theorizing. For example, incorporating impairment
effects in research could contribute to challenging
the exclusion of disability within inequality regimes
theorizing, or critiquing the implications of work
intensification and performativity expectations for
disabled people and how this contributes to the perception of disability as negated difference.
Further, building through this review of disability
studies theorizing has been a concern for the relationship between, and the construction of, disability
and non-disability. In social model research, this
is acknowledged, but does not occupy a central
focus for researchers. Feminist debates and critical
disability studies scholars research has resurfaced

171
the importance of exploring this relationship to
understand how disability is constructed and maintained as negated difference. This renewed interest
has led to the emergence of studies of ableism within
the UK disability studies field. As organization
studies theorists have identified, while the binary
construction of categories of social relations is problematic (Butler 1999; Knights and Kerfoot 2004), it
reflects a wider understanding of social relations
(Lamont and Molnr 2002) and facilitates an exploration of how hierarchical binaries of social relations emerge through social interactions (Baxter and
Hughes 2004) in order to undermine them (Knights
and Kerfoot 2004).
A final issue which contributes to addressing the
silence in organization studies on disability and
makes possible a political and social theorization of
disability is an engagement with studies of ableism.
Investigations of ableism can identify organizing
activities that contribute to the construction of disability as negated difference.
Studies of ableism
Studies of ableism shift the gaze in disability studies
from a research emphasis upon social reformation
through analysing the structural effects of society
upon disabled people (Campbell 2009b) towards
exploring the assumption, privileging and maintenance of non-disability as an organizing normative principle (Campbell 2009b; Chouinard 1997;
Hughes 2007; Overboe 1999). Chouinard (1997,
p. 380, emphasis added) suggests that ableism refers
to ideas, practices, institutions and social relations
that presume ablebodiedness, and by so doing,
construct . . . [disabled people] . . . as marginalised
. . . others . While disability need not be a negated
difference, but could be a difference which is neither
valued nor devalued, disability as negated difference
and the devaluation of disabled peoples lived experience is historically well established (Overboe
1999). It is more common for disabled people and
their requirements to be thought of negatively and as
different from normative assumptions rather than as
ordinary people doing ordinary things (Oliver 1990,
p. 61), albeit potentially adopting different ways of
organizing from non-disabled people. The argument
here supports a concern for how ableism is constructed, reproduced and maintained as a norm within
organizing contexts, to offer additional insights into
how disability is constructed as difference. As a contribution to the conceptualization and theorization

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172

J. Williams and S. Mavin

of disability, studies of ableism would contribute


to understanding how disabled people are marked as
different (Campbell 2008, 2009b; Overboe 1999)
through the normative assumptions of non-disability.
Engaging with ableism therefore offers the opportunity for organization studies projects concerned with
the construction of difference and the epistemological project to contribute to thinking and speaking
differently about disability (Campbell 2009b) as constructed and negated difference within a category of
social relations with non-disability.
Summary: a disability studies lens developed
through this review
The disability discourses and alternative social interpretation discourse developed through this review
are summarized in Table 1.
As Deetz (1992) and Cals and Smircich (2006)
argue, theoretical and conceptual choices construct
the lens through which research enables particular
ways of understanding the world, while such lenses
are acknowledged to be provisional (Ashcraft 2004).
Disability studies can contribute to organization
studies to enable alternative ways of thinking and
speaking about disability for studies of difference
and the epistemological project. This paper argues
that this can be achieved by broadening the focus
(Rhodes 2009) and extending the intersection (Polzer
et al. 2009) of disability studies and organization
studies and by developing a disability studies lens
(Figure 1) as an innovative contribution to the field
(Whetten 1989).
As a contribution to organization studies, by
constructing a disability studies informed lens,
this review has outlined the importance of both the
individual and social interpretation discourses of

disability for conceptualizing, theorizing and


researching disability and disabled peoples experiences. Through the development of the social model
discourse, the individual interpretation discourse is
named and problematized as limiting opportunities
for disabled people to engage in and shape their
social worlds. The discourse is argued to contribute
to the silence on disability theorizing through an
individualized interpretation of disability as biological or functional limitations. Naming and problematizing this conceptualization begins to address this
silence through a shift to a social model and then
social interpretation discourse. This social interpretation problematizes the individual discourse by offering an alternative understanding highlighting how
disability is socially constructed and how disabled
people are marginalized through individual discourse
interpretations. The social interpretation is an initial
step towards politicizing knowledge production and
addressing the silence and marginalization of disability, an approach which has influenced some HRM
and diversity research. This paper suggests that it is
important to take forward a critique of the individual
interpretation discourse and develop the social
interpretation discourse of disability. This reflects
the view that broader social discourses can be drawn
upon as either a resource or a constraint within
organizing contexts to construct concepts, ideas and
theories which enable people to shape understandings and social relations (Hardy and Phillips 1999).
Drawing upon both individual and social interpretation discourses will enable research to explore how
disability is conceptualized and responded to in
organizing contexts.
The social model, as part of a broader social interpretation of disability, highlights the importance of
the material for disabled people. This, along with the

Table 1. Discourses of impairment, disability and ableism


Discourses of impairment, disability and ableism
Individual model

Social model

Social interpretation

Impairment

Biological characteristic

Biological characteristic

Disability

Consequence of biological
impairment
Personal tragedy
Theoretically absent

Socially created through economic and


social relations and structural factors
Social oppression
Acknowledges non-disability as an
organizing norm, but does not engage
theoretically with ableism

Impairment effects experienced and a discursive


social construction
Discursive social construction and outcome of
social organizing processes and practices
Social construction
The privileging of non-disability as an organizing
norm
Theorized as an important contribution to the
construction of organizing contexts

Ableism

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Disability as Constructed Difference

173
Disability Studies Lens

Privileges a social interpretation discourse of disability


Problematizes an individual discourse of disability
Critiques the organization of the social world which excludes or
devalues the organizing requirements of disabled people whilst
centring ableism
Includes experiences of impairment effects
Has a concern for the role of discourses of disability in shaping
disabled peoples' experiences of the social world
Centres disabled people as knowledge producers to inform
theory development

Figure 1. Disability studies lens developed through this review

discursive focus of the social interpretation outlined


in this paper, can be included in research agendas as
part of a growing interest in a socio-material analysis
of organizing (Carlile et al. 2011; Orlikowski and
Scott 2008; Symon and Pritchard 2011).
The theoretical lens developed here has outlined
the growth of paradigmatic divergence within disability studies to engage with critical approaches,
which emphasize social interaction in the construction, reproduction and maintenance of disability as
negated difference. Drawing upon recent developments in critical disability studies, ableism is identified as an approach to researching the construction
of disability as negated difference within a category
of hierarchical social relations, where disability is
constructed in relation to normative expectations
of non-disability and marginalized and positioned
as Other. Including ableism in organization studies
debates around binaries of categories of social relations will draw attention to the construction of disability as negated difference through the centring of
non-disability as a normative expectation.
It is argued that the concept of impairment effects
enables organization studies research to account
for the implications of impairment for the organizing requirements of disabled people and to consider
how disabled people strategize and negotiate their
social contexts in relation to/with impairment.
Acknowledging the different impairment effectsrelated requirements of disabled people can enable
research to explore the extent to which such requirements are marginalized and how disabled people
are held accountable to, and assessed against, non-

disabled-related normative expectations. This would


support epistemological projects and studies of
difference to consider the extent to which organizing is shaped around the needs of non-disabled
people, or more positively, where inclusive practices
which incorporate impairment effects-related ways
of organizing are evidenced.
The social interpretation and disability studies
lens recognizes that disabled people can offer insights into the experience of disability without suggesting that disabled people are a social group to
be privileged over others (Campbell 2009b). Rather,
it is recognized that researching disabled peoples
experiences cultivates . . . inferential insight[s] . . .
in a way that is distinct from those whose lives are
not infused with impairment (Campbell 2009b,
p. 121, emphasis in original). This paper argues that
these are insights which are not surfaced sufficiently
in the organization studies epistemological project or
difference literatures. This is particularly important
for the epistemological project emphasis upon theory
engaging with different communities in order for us
to understand the conditions and differences between communities of people and marginalized subject positions.

Conclusion
The debates here have responded to Woodhams
et al.s (2010) call to advance theory that addresses
those people and issues silenced in meta-theoretical
critiques and the study of difference in organization

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174
studies. The review has argued that a disability
studies lens is required to address the silencing
of disability knowledge in organization studies. The
review has identified that, while the epistemological
project and difference literatures are well developed,
they lack a full engagement with disability theory
to conceptualize disability, impairment and ableism.
Drawing from the disability studies literature, a theoretical lens is outlined which conceptualizes and
theorizes disability as a negated difference, which
is discursively constructed in relation to normative
assumptions of non-disability (ableism) within a category of social relations. The lens surfaces the
importance of impairment effects and ableism when
accounting for disabled peoples organizing experiences. This lens is offered as an approach for future
research to extend the epistemological project in
organization studies, in terms of both how difference
is conceptualized and the theories drawn upon to
critique knowledge production, in ways which
account for disabled peoples experiences of disability, impairment effects and ableism.
Future research implications
This paper suggests that epistemological projects
focused upon meta-theoretical critiques of the politics of organizing and organization studies can be
further extended through research engaging with a
disability studies lens and a concern to include disabled peoples voices and experiences of management and organization.
In particular, future research could focus on the
disability discourses surfacing here and how they
contribute to knowledge construction across organization studies sub-fields. The social interpretation
of disability offered suggests that this requires, first,
an exploration of disability as constructed difference, rather than an essentialized understanding, and,
second, an engagement with the organizing implications of, and responses to, impairment effects.
Investigating the extent to which ableism is an
organizing normative expectation could contribute
to critiques of knowledge construction by exploring
the relationship between ableism and disability when
considering how categories of social relations are
written (or not) in organization theory. Further, by
including disability and ableism in the doing difference thesis, new insights into the accomplishment
and accountability of difference could be gained.
Taking forward a social interpretation of disability
could also contribute to future studies of intersec-

J. Williams and S. Mavin


tionality, in particular extending Ackers (2006)
inequality regimes thesis, which has excluded disability, theorizing.
In arguing for future research to engage with disability discourses, it is also suggested that research
agendas around socio-material analysis of organizing might benefit from engaging with the disability
studies lens and the disability discourses outlined
to progress a deeper understanding of the entanglement, or fusion, of the social and material in constructions of disability as difference.
Future research which engages with an understanding of disability as constructed difference could
investigate how disabled people negotiate organizing
contexts, particularly in terms of their requirements,
expectations and responses to work contexts. Further,
it could explore how disabled people engage in legitimacy claims to include, or are orientated towards
negating, impairment effects when organizing work.
Researching the organizing implications of impairment effects and how disabled people negotiate
organizing contexts would provide additional insights
into how disability is constructed as difference
through organizational members and management
responses to impairment effects. Such research could
contribute to a better understanding of the effects of
organizing on disabled peoples in/visibility and the
extent to which this is shaped through normative
expectations premised on ableism.
The research projects suggested are only some
of those that could contribute to broader research
agendas that are concerned with those people who
have a theoretical and organizationally marginalized
place. In engaging with disability studies to provide
a theoretical lens for the study of difference,
it remains important for all research to be reflexive
and consider researcher practices (Tsoukas and
Knudsen 2003) and what is included or excluded
from studies (Alvesson et al. 2008). This should
include how accounts of disability, impairment and
ableism are constructed.

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International Journal of Management Reviews 2012 British Academy of Management and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.