The 22nd Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) brought together a group of scholars from around Australia and the region with a shared interest in disability in Asia. Asian studies conferences are not a usual venue for the meeting of scholars of disability, but the 2018 ASAA conference provided a unique opportunity for this network of researchers and practitioners to both consider Asia through the lens of disability and to reflect on issues related to disability through the lens of Asia.
This conference was the first time that the ASAA hosted a stream of papers focussed specifically on the issue of disability in an Asian context, and the panels featured speakers from a wide range of disciplines including sociology, geography, development studies, as well as health science, education and public health. People with disabilities participated in the sessions, and the ASAA provided sign interpreters for the sessions in this stream. The pre-conference workshop on Monday 2 July – one of the most well attended of the various workshops run on that day – focussed on framing research questions about disability in an Asian context, working with practitioners through research and funding for disability research in Asia. The workshop was followed in the subsequent days by panels focussed on poverty and disability, disability inclusive disaster risk reduction, inclusive education and disability advocacy.
The themes that emerged through the disability stream raised key methodological and conceptual issues related to doing research about disability in Asia. The importance of collaboration was high on the agenda, with Australian scholar Professor Karen Fisher from the University of New South Wales explaining the critical need to work with local partners as a way of ensuring that her research questions were of relevance to the local context. Closely related to that, a number of participants noted the importance of language, and ensuring that all collaborators involved in joint research projects understood and agreed on the local terms referring to disability. For example, Parichatt Krongkant, a disaster risk reduction consultant from Thailand working on making disaster risk reduction disabililty inclusive, explained that terms such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’ have no direct translation in Thai. This linguistic gap means that the start of any project she is involved with requires some time to explain the relevant terminology. Many speakers also emphasised how collaboration between disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and other government and non-government stakeholders through the research process played a critical role in, not only empowering people with disabilities with new skills, but also educating those stakeholders and the wider community about disability.
Discussions over the course of the conference also highlighted the continued challenges that people with disability face in an Asian context. Dr Alexandra Gartrell from Monash University highlighted how in Cambodia, the persistence of disempowering cultural attitudes towards disability continued to significantly shape the treatment of people with disability, even though Cambodian policy about disability was relatively progressive. A team of researchers from the Nossal Institute of Global Health from the University of Melbourne illustrated the intersections between causes of poverty and the situation of people with disabilities in Asia and offered some unique tools for measuring and assessing these factors. International funding and its positive, and negative, impacts on communities of people with disabilities was another key focus of the stream.
There is a growing interest amongst disability scholars in perspectives on disability from the global South, making this meeting of disability researchers at the ASAA very timely. At the same time, the shifting attitudes, policies and practice around disability in Asia mean that it is equally important that Asian studies scholars consider issues related to disability, a largely hidden issue in most scholarly work on Asia. The ASAA should be commended for making space for this important issue in its largest ever biennial conference, and the enthusiasm of those who participated in the stream suggest that this will not be the last time that disability issues feature at an ASAA conference.
Featured image: A disability panel during the 2018 ASAA conference, from Pradytia Putri Pertiwi