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Public policy requires active understanding of the situation of the disabled

By Bruce Wearne - posted Wednesday, 4 January 2012

These are perilous days for doctored scholars like Peter Gibilisco, a regular contributor to On-Line Opinion. This review is to encourage more people to read his work, and in particular, the readers of Peter's OLO offerings to read this magnum opus. Just like any other PhD, Peter suffers the normal anxiety about his work being read when it is finally "out there" in the market place of ideas.

But this review, just like Peter's book, is not about generating sympathy for Peter or for PhDs, and in fact it isn't about tweaking reader sentiment for those facing the hurdles of disability. The author has actually re-written his PhD thesis to counter an ethos of conventional sympathy for the disabled with public policy that embodies active understanding. Peter is concerned that the culture of passive sympathy is counter-productive. His work tells us that this has been all too evident from where he sits in his wheelchair typing at 1 or 2 or 3 words a minute. In fact his work documents a significant deepening of insight (a matured wisdom) about how our society has been bogged down with sympathy for the "disabled" at the expense of understanding what is merely human. And his OLO offerings demonstrate that he has been active in making a path to cut away from any self-pitying contribution. That's part of his "issue" from out of which he tries to engage people through this book.

The argument of Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion is dynamic rather than static. He cannot avoid his own situation but he would prefer self-criticism to prevail. He doesn't hide his own situation. But his own situation isn't the basis for his call for justice.


And so, in his writings, just like any other PhD, Peter endures the loneliness of the long-distance scholar - like the farmer who, year in year out, carefully sows his seed only to find little yield from his crop because of enduring drought. It is in that kind of context that this book should be read.

Peter Gibilisco, the public person, the PhD, the OLO writer, is right in the middle of this intellectual isolation working away trying to generate movement from static sympathy to active understanding. It's the lesson of his life-time. It is the intellectual result of years of study and reflection. Peter works in and with that context - his loneliness qua scholar and his isolation due to his physiological immobility. The aim is to bring insight out of a convergence of these dimensions of his life-world. It is from within such a tension - scholarly loneliness and physiological isolation - that this work has been written.

Despite complex theoretical references, this book demonstrates a very simple (and ancient) argument about our humanity: it is a radical misperception to assume that people with serious physiological and neurological disabilities have been disconnected from their personhood… the basic idea is simple - a rose bud which has taken a long time to bloom is still a rose. So, we need books like Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion to see important aspects of our life which will escape us until people with Peter's developed insight confront us with their perspective. His work is like the Braille board placed on a public pathway near to where I live, overlooking the Rip - the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. We might never have grasped what a magnificent soundscape this place is if this board hadn't been erected to assist people with impaired vision to marvel. But not just sight-impaired people. The soundscape is there for all to hear if only we will close our eyes and experienced it. In its own way Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion is just like the Braille board telling us about things we wouldn't have perceived if Peter hadn't taken the trouble to tell us.

Peter's work aims to deepen our sensitivity about issues of inclusion. I have known Peter for over 20 years, when he took his first tentative steps along the scholarly path. These terms - "first tentative steps" - are rich with meaning - at that stage Peter was wobbling along on calipers - a determined young man who didn't want his progressive physiological condition to stand in his way. Our first encounter - "Can I enrol in your summer semester course in sociology, doctor?" - was after he had already negotiated the back stairs of the Frankston Monash campus building to knock on my office door.

This began our friendship. Thus began Peter's odyssey. After a few courses in sociology, having decided to take out a BA as well as a B Bus, Peter decided there was one theoretical problem he just had to tackle - economic theory had to be brought together with sociology. No small project this. This was the "big idea" of his own intellectual future. It's the philosophical problem that got Peter going. And does Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion achieve such an intellectual tour de force? No. Not at all. Not yet. But he has provided something very important for those seeking such a synthesis. The book illustrates how any sociological explanation will have to include economic concepts and analysis, while also emphasizing that any economic explanation worthy of the name cannot avoid sociological theorising. For Dr Gibilisco, the OLO author, this is a basic insight that fires his discussion in Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion.

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This is a review of Politics, Disability and Social Inclusion: People with Different Abilities in the 21st CenturyPeter Gibilisco. (VDM Verlag Dr. Mü­ller, Saarbrücken 20111 ISBN 978-3-639-29355-5)

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About the Author

Bruce Wearne is a doctoral graduate from LaTrobe University (1985), having also gained qualifications from Monash University (B.A. 1969-1971) and the University of Waikato, New Zealand (M.SocSc 1978).

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