Re-working disability: a Foucauldian discourse analysis of vocational rehabilitation in Aotearoa New Zealand
Vocational rehabilitation is a social practice that is focused on enabling people to overcome disability so that they can work. It involves many, sometimes diverse, strategies and programmes to achieve this aim, which have changed over time. The current importance of vocational rehabilitation as a practice within governmental agendas in Aotearoa New Zealand, and in many other countries around the world, has been demonstrated in recent policies and reports emphasising an imperative that disabled people are enabled to obtain work in order to achieve equality and maintain social systems. Ability to work has been associated with health and wellbeing, and scientific studies showing that unemployment is associated with poor health, and that disabled individuals want a 'normal' life, are often cited to underline the importance of vocational rehabilitation. However, while these ideas are widely accepted, they are not without challenges. There is a growing body of literature indicating that there continue to be difficulties in achieving the aims that vocational rehabilitation exists to deliver, and highlighting that rehabilitation practices have (often unintended) effects in addition to their specific aims — such as reproducing dominant notions of disability and normality. The aim of this inquiry was to open up the practice of vocational rehabilitation to examination. The study considers the social and political conditions of possibility for the emergence and continuation of vocational rehabilitation in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the effects of the systems of thought and action that come within its scope.
The study I outline in this thesis is a discourse analysis of the practice of vocational rehabilitation in Aotearoa New Zealand, applying the philosophical and theoretical work of Michel Foucault. To do this, I gathered and analysed a wide range of texts associated with vocational rehabilitation practices: including policy documents, images, letters, reports, meeting minutes, position statements, brochures, training materials, advertising (to give some examples). The gathered texts focused on three identified series of events, associated with specified historical shifts in vocational rehabilitation practices, as well as current vocational rehabilitation practices. The analysis involved applying Foucauldian methodological principles and theoretical concepts to these texts. The application of theory drew on concepts within Foucauldian scholarship that were particularly pertinent to the topic area, focusing on notions of 'governmentality' and 'bio-politics'.
The contribution of this study lies in highlighting and questioning ideas that have become self-evident in vocational rehabilitation practices, and making more visible aspects that may affect future directions. It shows historical conditions of possibility for the emergence and continuation of vocational rehabilitation as a social practice in Aotearoa New Zealand, and points to emerging trends in this field that present opportunities and dangers. Vocational rehabilitation is analysed as a governmental practice, with processes constructed within historically and culturally specific notions of economic systems, 'normal life' and 'disabilty'. These processes both utilise and (re)produce dominant ideas about what constitutes work and disability. Furthermore, I identify a move in some recent practices towards a normalisation of disability itself, which has the potential to considerably shift the focus of vocational rehabilitation.