Author(s):Gottfried Biewer (presenting), Tobias Buchner (presenting), Michael Shevlin (presenting), Miguel Ferreira (presenting), Camille Latimier (presenting)

Conference:ECER 2012, The Need for Educational Research to Champion Freedom, Education and Development for All

Network:04. Inclusive Education

Format:Round Table

Session Information

04 SES 01 A, Biographical Experiences of People with Disability in European Educational Systems

Round Table


Room:FFL - Aula 16

Chair:Gottfried Biewer


Biographical Experiences of People with Disability in European Educational Systems

In recent decades, important changes in the educational and social systems of European countries have taken place. A move can be traced away from separate educational settings in special schools to more inclusive forms, and from the principle of charity to new forms of empowering persons with disabilities under a human rights perspective.

The proposed round table presentations from four European countries are based on the intermediate results of the collaborative European research project Quali-TYDES ( In this 3–year project (2010-2013) funded by the European Science Foundation (ESF), the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS), the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (MICINN), and the Czech Science Foundation (GACR), researchers from Austria, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Spain investigate and explain how developments on different policy levels have impacted on the lives of young disabled people. By combining biographical research with critical policy analysis, the research partners aim to generate policy-relevant knowledge that is grounded in the experiences of young disabled people. The sample consists of 20 young people from each country (n=80), all born in the 1980s. The focus is on this specific cohort in order to research the impact of the dramatic changes in different fields of disability policy over the last 30 years. The round table will address differences in the development of policies in educational and social systems in the participating countries.

Research questions in this context are:

Which educational policies are evident in each country across the 30-year time span, and how are they related to European and Global strategies?

In which ways did the policy changes impact on the educational pathways of participants?

Which barriers, opportunities and choices for disabled students emerge from the biographical data? How are they related with the policy level?

The country-specific contributions will present findings from each country and compare them in a European perspective, in order to identify overarching key issues for future policy development and implementation.

The sample for comparison is diverse and consists of persons with sensory, physical and intellectual disabilities, of different genders, persons with and without migration background and differing social resources. Avoiding the `gate keeper´ phenomenon of service providers for disabled people, most participants were recruited via Disabled Peoples Organisations (DPOs) and Self-Advocacy Organisations by an `information drop´.



The collaborative work combines life stories with biographical research and policy analysis.
The interviews are collected in several waves. Some of the interviews are translated in to English and shared between the partners for comparative analysis.
The projects draws on Mark Priestley’s ‘individual-biographical’ and ‘structural-normative’ models of disability and the life course, and Sonali Shah’s application of ‘careers’ and ‘future selves’ (Priestley 2003, Shah & Priestley 2011). For comparison purposes, the research uses four key concepts in reading life stories:
• Trajectories - the direction in which life is moving or expected to move;
• Pathways - the actual routes that people follow through the events and decisions of their lives;
• Turning points – the moments when life pathways take a new turn;
• Resources and capital - the support that people call upon to make changes in their lives.

Expected Outcomes

The ongoing research provides real-life case studies of the barriers and opportunities created by national/local policy frameworks. Rich qualitative data, linked to critical policy analysis, raise the voices and representations of young disabled people who are often excluded from public policy discourse. The active involvement of disabled people’s organisations will ensure knowledge impact at national and European level. As the project started in 2010 the authors will present some intermediate results, with a focus on experiences in the educational sector of the 4 countries. The young adults’ life stories demonstrate the change from segregation to inclusion in educational systems of different European countries. But they also show sustained’ weaknesses in educational service provision. Due to a poor implementation of policies on inclusion, some participants had no opportunity to attend mainstream schools, experiencing segregated schooling with a strong focus on therapeutic aspects and poor academic learning, limiting their post-school opportunities and often leading to excluded trajectories. Attending mainstream schools enabled participants to achieve a further academic educational pathway, but often left them with ‘biographical scars’ due to marginalizations in the classroom.


Atkinson, D. & Walmsley, J. (1999): Using Autobiographical Approaches with People with Learning Difficulties. Disability & Society, 14 (2), 203-216.
Elder, G. H. (1994): Time, human agency, and social change: Perspectives on the life course author(s), Social Psychology Quarterly 57(1), 4-15.
French, S. & Swain, J. (2006): Telling stories for a politics of hope, Disability & Society, 21(5), 383-396
Goodley, D. (1996): Tales of Hidden Lives: a critical examination of life history research with people who have learning difficulties, Disability & Society, 11 (3), 333-348
Hvinden, B. and Halvorsen, R. (2003): Which way for European disability policy? Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 5 (3), 296-312.
Neale, B. and Flowerdew, J. (2003): Time, Texture and Childhood: the contours of longitudinal qualitative research, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 6(3), 189-200.
Owens, J. (2007): Liberating voices through narrative methods: the case for an interpretive research approach. Disability & Society, 22 (3), 299-313
Priestley, Mark (2003): Disability. A Life Course Approach. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press.
Shah, Sonali / Priestley, Mark (2011): Disability and Social Change. Private Lives and Public Policies. Bristol: The Policy Press.
Smith, B. & Sparkes, A. 2008. Narrative and its potential contribution to disability studies. Disability & Society, 23 (1), 17-28
Thomas, C. 1999. Female forms: Experiencing and understanding disability. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Author Information

Gottfried Biewer (presenting)
University of Vienna
Department of Education
Tobias Buchner (presenting)
University of Vienna
Michael Shevlin (presenting)
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Miguel Ferreira (presenting)
Complutense University Madrid, Spain
Camille Latimier (presenting)
Charles University Prague, Czech Republic