Doing Disability Research Differently: Embracing Culture for More Inclusive Practice



The University of Worcester and University of Tsukuba, Japan are institutes committed to promoting inclusive, empowering disability inclusion within the physical activity spectrum. Our first, and somewhat unexpected research (ad)venture together resulted in a ‘new’ way to do disability research that embraces and celebrates the unique cultures of the world.

Disability research has historically been written from an ‘ethnocentric’ point of view. Ethnocentrism, in the context of disability research, means that we understand or appreciate what disability is mainly through a white, Globally North, Western, historically Christian lens. If we forget that only a small portion of the world fits this description, we may make recommendations that do not help with inclusion and, at worst, cause harm. An example of why disability researchers must appreciate the different social norms, languages, faiths, belief systems, and expectations of people regarding disability is clear when we compare understandings of disability in the United Kingdom (UK) to Japan.

Disability language in the UK tends to revolve around either the medical or social model (though many other models exist). The UK medical model tends to understand that a person is disabled because they have a physical, emotional, learning, sensory or social ‘impairment’ that requires that person to adapt to wider society. Alternatively, the UK social model embraces that people have impairment effects but that ‘disablement’ is caused by a society that is built and structured to exclude those with impairments. If society was accessible, there would be no disability. What disability means is therefore very different depending on whether one aligns to a medical or social model.

Japan, on the other hand, has one word that encompasses ‘disability’, ‘impairment’, ‘injury’ etc., which is ‘ninjō. Already this highlights an important cultural difference as to the applicability of UK disability models in Japan; translating UK discourse to Japanese would lose important nuances of disability language in English. Similarly, the UK’s increasing neoliberal culture is very different to Japan’s collectivist culture. Japan’s culture is based on hierarchical relationships, contribution to society, respect, and conformity, and these attributes are highly valued. In Japanese culture there is typically distain to difference, and a mistrust or consternation to those that do not conform to accepted social values – such as those with impairments. These differences in language and culture are just two examples of why disability research needs to adopt a more context-specific approach to do inclusive physical activity work.

Our Approach

With a team of British, Japanese, and Japanese American researchers (see below for images), we created an approach we believe can be used to respect the uniqueness of different cultures such that research can make better recommendations for practice and more effectively serve disabled communities. 


Researchers (left to right) Shigeharu Akimoto, Shinichi Nagata, Cindy Hall and Emma Richardson
Pictured left to right: Researchers Shigeharu Akimoto, Shinichi Nagata, Cindy Hall and Emma Richardson

Termed ‘Cultural Praxis in Critical Disability Studies’ this approach brings the work of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher, into disability research. An outline of our approach is shown below.


'Cultural Praxis in Critical Disability Studies' approach shown as diagram

For Freire, ‘praxis’ means to reflect and act upon the world to transform it. In the context of disability, (1) reflect what an issue is, (2) determine what may be done to fix this, and (3) do it! To do cultural praxis well, though, researchers are required to do a few things before even starting the research:

  1. Reflect on their own cultural backgrounds to see how these might impact data interpretation;
  2. Consciously shift their perspective to embrace there may be many different ways to interpret data – and these may all be valid;
  3. Educate themselves about the culture they are working in.

This was not only our first step, but something that underpinned our thinking throughout the whole research process.

The purpose of our work was to create a plan that would help Japanese PE teachers include disabled students in class. We therefore conducted a review of all English and Japanese language-based publications linked to disability and PE in Japan before analysing these in a way that would create meaningful themes we could further analyse. Once we had those themes, we used lenses of cultural studies and critical disability studies to make sure we were being respectful to Japanese culture.

Cultural studies helps researchers position themselves in the culture in which they are working, not the culture they were brought up in. Critical disability studies helps researchers highlight ways disability is experienced and understood, but then encourages researchers to think of ways that disabled people could be more socially included. By focusing on Japanese culture, we were able to understand disability and education in ways that ‘fit’ better in the real world, and from which we could make reasonable and realistic suggestions to help teachers in practice. For example, a key lens we used was the ‘Theory of Conformity’ that fit well within Japanese collectivist culture. This theory highlighted that teachers did not have freedom to change or adapt classes to include disabled students such that teachers in the UK may have, but that Japanese teachers are bound to a government developed teaching practice they must deliver faithfully. Therefore, to ask teachers to do something differently or adapt an activity, which is often the recommendation in Global North, Western cultures, without going through the Japanese hierarchical education system would not work and may be deemed disrespectful.

This cultural praxis approach allowed us to write an empirical paper highlighting the current state of PE in Japan for teachers and disabled students, and create a future research agenda suggesting ways that researchers can help make PE in Japan more inclusive. This paper is currently under review and we will be delighted to share this once it has been accepted. In the mean time, we are delighted to share with you our accepted paper “A Proposition for Cultural Praxis in Critical Disability Studies: A Methodological Design for Inclusive Research” where we share in more detail how we created this approach and why we believe it can contribute to more culturally nuanced work in inclusive disability physical activity.