February Blog – Understanding our Lives: the Role of Qualitative Research and Stories

Dr Theo Blackmore

In June 2014 I finished a qualitative oral history video project where I interviewed about twenty disabled people living in Cornwall about their lives. I have been using qualitative research methods for over ten years now, because of the depth of understanding it gives into the lives of disabled people that is not offered by other research methods.

When I had finished these videos I put them up online, on the Vimeo website
 and then advertised them widely throughout the disability community. The videos were watched by people all over the world – I even had one view in Uzbekistan! Several people commented directly to me about the videos, with one person in Sweden saying that my videos were not about Cornwall, “They are about disability!”

And that is the key for me about qualitative research. When we hear other disabled people telling their stories about their lives it resonates with our own experiences. Someone once said that if something is true for one person it is probably true for millions more. In my videos we hear disabled people talking about their time at school, at college, working, volunteering and having a social life. We hear them talking about their real experiences of dealing with their Local Authority, with the Benefits Agency, trying to get on a bus. We hear them talking about being bullied at school, or having people treat them badly in their local town centre.

And we hear about the lovely things that people don’t talk about in relation to disabled people. We hear about their loves, their families, their children, the things that make them laugh, and the things that make them cry.

All these things are what I am interested in – I am interested in ‘normal’ disabled people. When we watch the telly in the evening disabled people very rarely appear. When we do appear it is as a tragic story, a war hero, a super human disabled person who has rowed across the Atlantic or climbed a mountain, or a sob story to try to raise money for some charity or other. Disabled people in the movies are usually the baddie – think about all those disabled James Bond baddies who want to rule the world.

We very rarely see ‘normal’ disabled people just living a ‘normal’ life, along with the rest of the population.

What I tried to do in my video project was to show the lives of regular disabled people in Cornwall. This is really important for all sorts of reasons, not least because it shows us as valued members of our local community who are as important and valuable as everyone else is. It normalises us.

This is very important in the current political climate. While the public sector is slashing Local Authority budgets it always seems like it is we disabled people who are bearing the brunt of these cuts. As part of this Austerity project there is a general thrust in the mainstream media to dehumanise us, to hide us, and to make it acceptable to remove the services from we people who most need them.

We need to present a different picture to the world. As a disabled person myself I find that qualitative research levels the playing field between the person doing the research and the people taking part as research participants. There is no power imbalance – I can ask questions, and they can ask me. It is more like a conversation, it is more relaxed, we have a laugh, they can say things that resonate with my own life, and the whole process becomes less scary. And the results are a whole lot more powerful because of that.

This DRILL Project has the potential to make some real differences to the individual and collective lives of disabled people. As we start to decide and plan our own research agenda we will uncover things that will be really useful to our organisations, our local campaigns, and the way that local services are planned and where they are located. For the first time disabled people are setting the research agenda.

This is also a great opportunity to get some new skills into local Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs). Local organisations will learn research design, evaluation, interviewing techniques, video and sound recording skills, editing, distribution, research writing, and a whole lot more. DRILL has contacts in Universities who can help DPOs to set a new research agenda, one that suits our own needs.

This is merely the start of the disabled people’s research project. The DRILL Project can help give DPOs the skills to do their own research, so that they can continue into the future. Most Disabled People’s Organisations already do some research – we design, monitor and evaluate our work on a regular basis. We do this is to meet the needs of our funders and partners. This DRILL project provides an opportunity to think for ourselves about the kinds of research that would be useful, and interesting, to ourselves and our organisations.

This project is not only unique here in the UK, but I am not sure there is anything like it anywhere in the world. Disabled people’s stories, and disabled people’s lives, are the most hidden stories. Disabled people have very little voice in today’s culture of “He who speaks loudest is most heard”. This is our opportunity to begin to bring our voices to the fore.

Blog post by Dr Theo Blackmore. Theo has a broad range of professional interests and experience in the field of disability issues. He has worked for several national disability organisations, with many local and regional organisations. He has created 2 local disability charities, as well as numerous disability projects, including a project researching issues around disability and rurality.


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