DRILL: funding the future of disability studies

DRILL: funding the future of disability studies

A new initiative for funding academic research seeks to tap directly into the lives and experiences of disabled people, says Ruth Patrick.

Members of the disabled people’s movement have long campaigned under the banner of ‘nothing about us without us’. This powerful and simple slogan speaks to disabled people’s desire for self-determination and for a policy and service agenda that starts from and works with disabled people’s own expertise and understanding of disability, impairments and the disabling barriers they so often face. This call can be applied to almost every area of public life, and has a particular relevance to research, traditionally the preserve of white, middle-class, male academics locked away and detached in their ivory towers.

Over the past 30 years, Britain’s disability studies field has developed a reputation as world leading in its research and activism around disability, as exemplified in the work of Disability Now regular Mike Oliver. Unfortunately though, the institutional structures of universities and bureaucratic research funding processes can still make efforts to develop research that represents a genuine partnership with disabled people challenging. Indeed, efforts to innovate here are often met with obstacles and frustrations.

This is why the recent arrival of DRILL – ‘Disability Research Into Independent Living and Learning’ – onto the research and policy landscape is so important. Funded by a £5 million award from the Big Lottery Fund, DRILL has been set up to distribute research funding on disability issues that is genuinely co-produced. What this means is that any research funded by DRILL must be developed and completed following a partnership model that includes and involves disabled people at every stage. This model of ‘co-production’ is embedded in DRILL’s organisational structure, with the decisions of which research projects to fund made by committees which consist of academics, representatives from disabled people organisations and activists (a majority of whom are themselves disabled).

Speaking exclusively to Disability Now shortly before announcing the first round of successful research bids, Evan Odell, DRILL’s programme officer for England, outlined its aims:

“DRILL’s aim is to greatly increase the amount of co-produced disability research taking place in the UK today. We wanted to provide a funding resource that created opportunities to find out and tell important stories about disabled people’s lives, with research projects led by the priorities of disabled people, working in partnership with other researchers. We will be funding research that is unlikely be funded elsewhere: so creating new opportunities for new and much needed types of research.”

Evan described the interest generated by DRILL’s first call for research proposals:

“The demand from the first round of funding has been massive. Across the UK, we received 210 applications and the quality is incredibly strong. We wish that we could fund more of them, but we are enthused by the range and diversity of applications we received.”

Of the research bids they received, there was often a focus on exploring the barriers that disabled people face, and how these can be most effectively overcome. There was also lots of interest in how to increase the effectiveness of the campaigning and lobbying that disabled people do: an area where more research could almost certainly reap great rewards. One of the successful applicants explained to DRILL that she felt the research she would do would be about documenting facts and experiences that are familiar to many disabled people themselves, but which are still not widely known or understood in policy and academic research circles.

DRILL anticipates that the first findings from their funded research will start to be published from the middle of 2017. It will be fascinating to see what emerges and the contribution that this genuinely co-produced and innovative programme can make. DRILL undoubtedly takes the ‘nothing about us without us’ call into the research domain with gusto, and represents a much-needed and incredibly valuable addition to the UK’s research climate.

Visit DRILL for more information, including how to apply for future rounds of funding.

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