Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Contemporary Social Theory as a Tool to Understand the Experiences of Disabled Students in Higher Education

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Abstract:  This is a conceptual article which seeks to consider the use of contemporary social theory to help understand the experience of disabled students in higher education. The use of social theoretical insights has been criticised by many as demonstrating a lack of engagement with the everyday experiences of disabled people. Work which strives to embed theoretical insights into the study of disability has also been criticised for lacking engagement with the ‘reality’ of impairment. In this article I intend to address some of these criticisms by suggesting some ways in which the use of contemporary social theory may provide an explanatory tool which disentangles confusion regarding the journey undertaken by the disabled student. I will discuss how the writings of several social theorists may be helpful in making sense of disabled student journeys. I will begin by discussing why the work of Jacques Derrida can be useful in this regard. These writings will be considered alongside a debate which draws on the writings of Michel Foucault on the use of power in contemporary higher education institutions. I will critically discuss the theoretical insights of Deleuze and Guattari and their offerings on the notion of ‘becoming’. I will then critically interrogate the work of Rosi Braidotti and apply these to a re-imagining of the disabled student journey. The writings of these important theorists have been used before to explore the experiences of disabled people. However, this article is unique in that it proposes that these writings can be used to demystify the experiences of disabled students in higher education. I suggest some ways the work of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and Braidotti enable a greater understanding of my personal student journey. I suggest that they could be used to make sense of a far wider range of student journeys. I conclude the article by offering a model which utilises some important aspects of these theoretical insights.

Keywords:  contemporary social theory; disability; higher education; postsecondary education; Social Security Disability Insurance; student; Supplemental Security Income



© Jonathan Harvey. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.