Under Pressure to Be ‘Normal’: An Exploration of the Material-Discursive Practices that Affect the Experience of Disability and Gender in Employment.

Bend, Gemma (2020). Under Pressure to Be ‘Normal’: An Exploration of the Material-Discursive Practices that Affect the Experience of Disability and Gender in Employment. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00012048

Abstract

Research has demonstrated that disabled women and men encounter barriers within employment. Often, these experiences are exacerbated when organisational practices fail to consider the embodied experiences of disabled women and men. This perpetuates experiences of inequality and exclusion within working spaces. This thesis draws on the theory of feminist posthumanist performativity to explore if and how the practices enacted within organisations oppress and exclude disabled women and men. This thesis is based on two studies from two types of employment in the United Kingdom: sheltered and mainstream employment. Study one employs ethnographic participant observations and semi-structured interviews within a manufacturing sheltered workshop. Study two utilises semi-structured interviews to elicit a wider view of disabled people’s experiences in different types of mainstream employment.

The data analysis is organised around five themes: (a) inclusion, exclusion and discrimination; (b) cognitive and physical barriers to workplace participation; (c) practical and work-based support; (d) performative enactment of difference; and (e) resisting and disrupting oppressive practices. The findings demonstrate how materiality intra-acts with social discourses to affect the performative enactment of identities in the workplace. Furthermore, the analysis reveals how policies and practices enacted within organisations exclude or include employees through reproducing or challenging normative and essentialist conceptualisations of disability and gender.

The thesis’ contribution to posthumanist performativity is threefold: Firstly the analysis critically explores how material-discursive practices enacted within contemporary systems of work constrain access to, and progression within, employment for disabled women and men. Secondly, the study adds evidence to the limited studies that explore how identities such as disability and gender are performatively enacted as forms of oppression. Thirdly, the thesis gives evidence of how the performative enactment of minority identities as forms of oppression are disrupted and challenged through strategies that emerge within a feminist posthumanist performative lens, specifically transformative affirmative ethics.

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