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Academic interview: Dr Debbie Foster

27 November 2016
Dr. Debbie Foster © Natasha Hirst
Dr. Debbie Foster © Natasha Hirst

“The Health and Well Being agenda sounds positive, but it actually excludes Disability.”

Debbie Foster is a sociologist and a Reader in Employment Relations at Cardiff Business School (UK). She instigated the setting up of CRED (Cardiff Researchers on Employment and Disability) heading an application with Prof. Ralph Fevre (Social Sciences Cardiff University) and Dr Natasha Hirst (Disability Wales, photographer and independent researcher) to the Cardiff Business School’s Public Value Fund.  This supports activities which promote engagement between Cardiff University academics and external researchers, NGOs, trade unions and statutory organisations.

Debbie has published research on disability and employment in the journals Sociology, Work, Employment and Society, The British Journal of Industrial Relations and Industrial Relations Journal. She has a current interest in the ways in which neo-liberal ideas are influencing the health and well-being at work agenda and its particular effects on disabled employees.

Earlier in her career, Debbie was very involved with researching and teaching on gender equality, and also on ethnicity. Yet disability equality hadn’t come into her field of awareness.  Following a long term illness, her lived experience of disability and discrimination became influential and she used these in her approach to disability research.

On Disability Studies

Debbie is one of only a few academics working in UK Schools of Business to use a critical disability studies lens in her work.  As a disabled person she is committed to the social model of disability, co-produced ethical research with other disabled people and working to improve the ‘voice’ of disabled people in public policy-making and academic forms. She is currently working with colleagues in the UK and Belgium exploring the interface between disability and business studies through the concept of ableism at work.

Dr Debbie Foster © Natasha Hirst
Dr Debbie Foster © Natasha Hirst

She has conducted disability research with Wales TUC, with Natasha Hirst from Disability Wales and is currently researching with partners (in Estonia, Hungary and Poland) on an EU funded project examining industrial relations and disabled and older workers, and is a member of the Welsh National Advisory Group on Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL).

On research impact

As an academic researching disability and based in a Business School, she is aware of the challenges in seeking to get disability research recognised and published in high profile ‘mainstream’ and often quantitatively focused journals. Debbie’s objective is to improve reach and research impact by publishing in influential journals with a wide readership and in doing so, demonstrating the importance of disability research in the world of business.

Holding the view that disability research can usefully use mixed methods of quantitative and qualitative approaches, Debbie points to the divide that can exist between the extremes of the two. Large datasets may not always ask the right questions to reach from the ‘what?’ to the ‘why?’ and small scale studies, though rich in detail are often not enough to influence policy makers.

She believes that the way that US researchers often use mixed-methods, employing qualitative methods to first identify which questions to ask and a questionnaire afterwards to achieve representativeness is more useful in disability research.  This way the meanings and lived realities of disabled people are central to research design.

Supply vs Demand

There is a fascinating discussion to be had regarding employer attitudes towards disabled workers. Employers often assume that they do not want disabled people in their workforce and yet may not realise that a third of their employees may already meet the definition set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Much discussion revolves around the business case for employing disabled people and yet disability equality at its core is an issue of social justice and fairness, creating something of a paradox in seeking a solution to discrimination. The current trend to subsume disability into the health and well being agenda stands to politically marginalise disability discourse.

An inclusive workplace is one that encompasses and benefits all. Workers need to know that if they declare a disability or take a career break to manage an illness, that they won’t be penalised for it.  It can take an individual case to drive through change on the back of personal experience but this may only be localised. Collective strategies are, however, needed to bring about substantial change in organisations and labour markets. This is why engagement with trade unions and Disabled People’s Organisations is so important in Debbie’s research.

More work is needed to challenge attitudes and turn around the myth of normalcy and what constitutes a ‘productive’ worker. Rather than trying to make disabled people fit the myth of the ‘normal worker’, employers need to be demanding disabled people on their workforce because they are able to offer something different. The skillsets and life experiences of disabled people should be valued and demanded by employers and Debbie emphasises the crucial role of research in creating this critical change in public policy and practice.