23 SES 04 B, Higher Education
In an era in which political uncertainties and economic instability seem to accompany European governments on the relentless road from welfarism to neoliberalism, universities are asked to promote equity, address diversity, and provide high-level education to be competitive on an increasingly globalised labour market. In this scenario, whilst disabled students’ rights are upheld through international documents such as the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability (UN, 2006), and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000, Art.26); on a state government level, a welfare reason ensures access to higher education through medical practices, and neoliberal positions undermine disability services and financial provisions in academic settings.
Truth is always local and contingent, Foucault would have argued. But how can universities, in an era of individualized risk, ensure stability as well as an equal, rightful and meaningful educational experience to disabled students without discursively reworking exclusion?
Framed within studies on governmentality (Dean, 2010; Foucault, 1991, Rose, 1999), Critical Disability Studies (Tremain, 2015; Dolmage, 2017; Campbell, 2009) and Foucault policy studies in education (Ball, 2013; Olssen and Peters, 2005; Olssen et al. 2004; Armstrong, 2003; Slee, 2012; Tomlinson, 2017), my presentation seeks to investigate how these historical conditions shape the government of disability in Italian academic milieus delving into the operations of welfare and neoliberal reasons mobilising respectively integrative and inclusive regimes of practices in Italian higher education, and producing certain historically placed programmes, authorities, values, experiences and identities.
To do that, I develop a diagnostic and analytical tool called dis/ability dispositif (Deleuze, 1991; Bussolini, 2010). Foucault (2008:xxiii) defines a dispositif as ‘an arrangement of forces, practices and discourses, power and knowledge’, which allows for different strategies and tactics of power to be exposed and interrogated. By the means of the dis/ability dispositif as a tool for analysis, first I genealogically investigate the intersecting liberal reasons that led disability to become a problem to be addressed in higher education; and then I operationalize these reasons through data collected during an ethnographic study in a particularly well-performing university in the North of Italy. Ethnographic tools, as Tamboukou and Ball (2003) as well as Villasden (2015) aptly suggest, enable me to follow the tenuous relations of power and mechanisms of government that produce as well as manage, disability in higher education.
My analysis shows how, in times in which funding depends on institutional performances and international rankings, inclusion and equity have become strategies of visibility and attractiveness, marketised in their social justice values; whereas university practices emerge as ableist and highly performative. In this historical context, disabled students are subjects regulated by shifting reasons, shaped by the co-existence of welfare practices, through which they are identified as medical subjects of deficit to be rehabilitated towards a certain academic norm; and neoliberal practices, which asks them to perform as agile, proactive, neoliberal subjects. In this uncertain and risky historical period, the dis/ability dispositif constitutes an analytical tool to investigate how risk is created in higher education and by what means this risk can be addressed. However, by also being a diagnostic tool, it intends to supply a ‘snap-shot’ of the present of ability in higher education, challenging the transient nature of truth, and offering an evidence-based space to rethink policies to support disabled students educational access and attainment. In this way, the dis/ability dispositif enables the joint analysis of the ad hocery of fleeting disability truths, in times of shifting national state reasons, with structural, although changeable, systemic features, so to provide a critical basis onto which rethink capacities and skills in an troubled Europe.
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