Dr Ann Leahy explores the relationship between disability and ageing in new book

Posted: 7 July, 2021

  • Dr Ann Leahy’s book ‘Disability and Ageing – Towards a Critical Perspective’ explores the experience of disability in older age


How is disability affected by ageing and how can we develop an understanding of the subjective experiences of disability in older age?

Dr Ann Leahy explores these questions in her new book Disability and Ageing – Towards a Critical Perspective. Published by Policy Press, the book features in the Ageing in a Global Context series in association with the British Society of Gerontology, addressing broad cross-cutting issues around ageing in a global society. Launched at the British Society of Gerontology Conference 2021, the book marks the culmination of Dr Leahy’s IRC-supported postgraduate and postdoctoral research at the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University.

We interviewed Dr Leahy to learn about her motivation for undertaking the research and what makes her book such an important contribution to the fields of ageing and disability.


What motivated you to undertake this research?

I worked in the NGO age-sector for some time before starting a PhD. I knew that public policies, NGOs and professionals in the fields of disability and ageing remained quite separate. This strict separation struck me as paradoxical, given that disabled people age and that most people will experience disability with ageing (barring premature death).


How was your approach innovative?

Research that examines ageing and disability together, drawing on scholarship in both fields, is rare. There are almost no studies investigating experiences both of people who have aged with long-standing disability alongside people first experiencing disability with ageing. The two experiences are assumed to be very different, although almost no studies compare them. The core of my study involved interviews with 42 older people experiencing physical or sensory disability drawn from those two groups.


When people experience impairment in older age it is generally not considered ‘disability’. Within research and policymaking on ageing, much of the focus is on what can be called the ‘third age’ – in other words, ageing experienced by people without impairment or chronic illness and on prevention or deferral of disability. This is linked with an understandable desire to promote health and functioning for as long as possible or to challenge stereotypes and disproportionately negative views that many people hold about ageing.


But while much research explores functioning and loss of function, little attention focuses on subjective experiences of the so-called ‘fourth-age’ associated with impairment or illness.  What I became interested in over time was how ageing is experienced with disability or chronic illness. Those concerns provided the questions for my PhD study.


What are the key findings of your book? 

Though disability in older age is subject largely to medical or functional analysis, this is not the whole story. My book argues that a range of contextual factors actively disabled and limited participants’ potential, as they do of all disabled people. These included disablist social relations, which could mean being overlooked or excluded by other people, experiencing environments such as footpaths or transport inaccessible, and lack of material resources.


Disability and Ageing – Towards a Critical Perspective highlights how participants responded to the challenges involved in disablement processes. Disablement (or worsening disability) was often experienced simultaneously with loss of intimates and reduced social networks. In combination, this could be very challenging. In response, participants engaged in ongoing processes of interpretation and reinterpretation, which are insufficiently appreciated in discourse on ageing, especially in relation to the so-called ‘fourth-age’ or late older-age, when disability is more prevalent, a period often assumed to be largely about ‘decline’. While some participants felt their aspirations thwarted, others found positive aspects of later life lived with disability, especially through connecting with others and finding purposeful activity, sometimes with support from public services or community organising.


My book sheds new light on the experiences of two groups rarely considered together in research – people ageing with disability over the entire life course (or for many decades) and people first experiencing disability with ageing. While the experience of people in the first group, especially, are diverse, both groups aspire to connection with others, inclusion in what is perceived as the mainstream of life, and desire lives they value or perceive as meaningful. Relatively little is known about subjective experiences of ageing with long-standing physical or sensory disability and there is a clear rationale for more engagement with this group from researchers, activists and policy-makers.


Finally, although disability in older age is often thought of in medical or functional terms, my research employs the definition of disability contained in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which, I argue, was consistent with how participants experienced disability. I argue for more engagement by people working on ageing with the Convention, which is relevant to disability experienced at any point of the lifespan though not always invoked in relation to disability in older age.

Disability and Ageing: Towards a Critical Perspective can be ordered from Policy Press.

‘This is a wonderfully exciting study of the ageing/disability intersection: we have been waiting for a book like this in disability studies for a long time.’

– Professor Tom Shakespeare, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Dr Ann Leahy’s research at the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University, was supported by a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship and a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship.

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