Making Space for Intimate Citizenship

This post was written by Kirsty Liddiard, School of Education, University of Sheffield, former Ethel Louise Armstrong Post-Doctoral fellow at the School of Disability Studies.

Twitter: @kirstyliddiard1

four people stand in the centre with one alone in front and one alone behind
Hand drawn images representing connections between us.

In September I was lucky enough to venture back to Toronto (and the School of Disability Studies!) with some UK colleagues and self-advocate researchers from Speak Up Self-Advocacy Rotherham to take part in the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded (SSHRC) international workshop, Making Space for Intimate Citizenship (September 2015) (hereby Making Space).

Together, Esther Ignagni (School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University), Ann Fudge-Schorrmans (School of Social Work, McMaster University), Katherine Runswick-Cole (Research Institute for Health and Social Change, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), and myself (School of Education, University of Sheffield, UK) – with the vital support of Kim Collins (School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University) – have been planning the workshop over the past year. The aim of the workshop was simple: to bring together a disparate group of people from Canada, South Africa, Australia and the UK – academics, self-advocates, Canadian service providers, Aboriginal leaders, students, and artists – to speak about intimate citizenship in the lives of disabled people. The aim of Making Space was to share knowledge, experiences and insights related to the extent to which intimate citizenship is realized and accessed by people labelled with intellectual disabilities (hereby labelled people). In this blog, I’d like to share some reflections.

two groups of two standing together. with two people alone and off to the side
Hand drawn images representing the connections between us.

‘Intimate citizenship’ is a term coined by the British Sociologist Ken Plummer (2003). It refers to the evolving relationships between our private and public lives; the idea that the ‘personal’ matters in our lives – who we love; where we live; our sex/ualities, partnerships, and friendships; how we bear and raise our children; and the forms of intimate labour or work we carry out along the way – is increasingly contoured by, and penetrates, public life. Intimate citizenship necessarily involves negotiating body-based, psycho-emotional and social contact with others. As such, “intimate problems”, commonly understood as private, have significant public and policy implications. Those readers who have made the journey through DST501 (an introductory course on Ryerson’s BA Disability Studies) might remember learning about C. Wright Mills’ (1959) The Sociological Imagination. In this key text, Mills argues that our lived experiences can never be separated from the political, social and historical contexts in which they take place – our private troubles are public issues. This is a similar concept that once again emphasizes the interconnectedness of the “inside” and “outside” spaces of our individual and social lives.

As a public sociologist and researcher interested in disability, sex/uality and gender, my work has shown that intimate citizenship is routinely contested, controlled and contained, and thus fragile, in the lives of disabled people (see Liddiard and Slater, forthcoming). The rights of disabled people to pursue several spheres of intimate life, including sexual identity and expression, friendship, marriage and cohabitation, family life and parenthood, are enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). These rights are important because intimate relationships establish the social networks necessary to support employment, educational success, secure housing, family stability, sexual health and wellbeing, and build resilience to deal with the deleterious effects of structural and interpersonal ableism. Barriers to intimate ties lead to social and economic costs associated with vulnerability to abuse and violence, child welfare involvement, trans-institutionalization and reliance on private and social care resources. In practice, we know little of disabled people’s experiences of intimate citizenship; little detailed exploration of people’s intimate experiences has been undertaken. Even less is known about the spaces disabled people may easily access and stake claims to their intimate citizenship, especially in austere times, and how this may shape intimate subjectivities, relations and practice. Nor do we know what new ableisms – the exclusions, disadvantages and silencing of people with impairments – or other barriers are encountered within the exercise of intimate. Importantly, our knowledge rarely includes disabled people as competent commentators on their own life conditions.

five people standing together with one person alone and to the right
Hand drawn images representing the connections between us.

To counter this, Making Space employed facilitated arts-based techniques to enhance the access to the conceptual and research discourse that typically marginalizes labelled people (and many others). This embodied our desire for labelled people to be co-producers of all activities and outcomes within Making Space. Organised around three salient dimensions of human citizenship: loving, labouring consuming, participants worked closely in smaller groups to explore our lived experiences. I was in the labouring group, led by Cheryl Zinyk, Nick Herd and Matt Rawlins from Sol Express, which used improvisational theatre techniques to explore the relationship between intimate labour/s, access, structure and citizenship. Collectively, we put together a short dramatic piece that spoke to the multiple barriers faced by labelled people upon claiming an intimate self and life in the context of the multiple dis/ableist systems they live within and through. The piece involved miming a number of “real-life” still photographs which depicted what needs to happen for (health, education, welfare, and care) systems to become more progressive, supportive spaces that listen and work to the voices, desires and ambitions of labelled people (see Matt’s drawings of our performance). As a scholar who loves to write, the notion of acting and performing ideas threw me a little at first (read: made my blood run cold…) Yet what emerged was a highly conceptual piece of work co-created by the many different people in our group (scholars, community folk, self-advocates) that was at the same time beautifully artistic. Using these techniques, and watching those of the Loving and Consuming groups, it was clear that they supported and enabled multiple ways of thinking and knowing, often far removed from academic discourse in its conventional sense. Movingly, the knowledge produced was profound, vital and lived.

two people in the centre of a circle made of 6 people. One person on the outside of the circle
Hand drawn images representing the connections between us.

Our task now is to mobilise these ideas, to work alongside self-advocates in our own countries to ethically and faithfully develop the initial learning and exploration that happened at Making Space. In sum, our aim is that this will happen through further activism, research, advocacy and community arts projects which theorise, politicize and make space for labeled people to claim rights and access to their intimate citizenship.

To learn more about Making Space and intimate citizenship, please see the Making Space for Intimate Citizenship hub. To learn more about what happened at the Making Space workshop, check out our Storify.


Plummer, K. (2003) Intimate Citizenship: Private Decision and Public Dialogues. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press

Slater, J. and Liddiard, K. (in press) “Like, pissing yourself is not a particularly attractive quality, let’s be honest”: Learning to Contain through Youth, Adulthood, Disability and Sexuality’, Sexualities (Special Issue: Pleasure and Desire).

Wright-Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press


I would like to say a massive thank you to all of the self-advocates for giving their time, care and focus to the project. Thanks also go to all of the exceptional volunteers that made Making Space run so smoothly. Lastly, to all at the School of Disability Studies, thank you (once again) for your customary support, consideration, warmth and love. Without doubt, the School remains the magical place I left.

All drawings by Matt Rawlins (Sol Express, 2015).


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