Goodley, Professor Dan

‘Big Society’ has been hailed as David Cameron’s and the Coalition Government’s big idea. Some have described Big Society as the bits of society that are left over outside of the state or the economy and others see ‘Big Society’ as enabling local communities to take control of their own quality of lives. The Cabinet Office identified three core layers of the Big Society policy agenda: (i) Empowering communities: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area; (ii) Opening up public services: enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services; (iii) Promoting social action: encouraging and enabling people from all walks of life to play a more active part in society, promoting more volunteering and philanthropy. Big Society appears to be calling upon civil society to support the communities they serve. Civil society refers to charities, social enterprises, faith communities and voluntary groups. Clearly, disabled people with learning disabilities rely heavily on and contribute to civil society, though this is often ignored. This research project works with people so-labelled and their key partners from the civil society to consider their place in the current Big Society context, with a specific focus on three regional locations in England. We pose a number of questions:

  1. To what extent are people with learning disabilities participating in civil society today?
  2. What are the ongoing and anticipated impacts of the cuts in public funding and new policies of the coalition government on civil society organisations aligned to people with learning disabilities?
  3. In the current climate what opportunities exist for people with learning disabilities to contribute to and benefit from the Big Society and, hence, civil society?
  4. To what extent are the three layers of Big Society (empowering communities, opening up public services, promoting social action) illuminated by three civil societal practices of people with learning disabilities (circles of support, real employment, self-advocacy)?
  5. What can be learnt about the realities of the Big Society in practice from current and emerging examples of civil society for people with learning disabilities?
  6. How are people with learning disabilities experiencing opportunities for (self)advocacy, employment and community support and participation in civil society?

Our research draws on ideas from sociology, social policy, community psychology and disability to help us contextualise these questions. Our study works with three civil society research partners – Circles of Support in Lancashire, Real Employment in Bristol, self-advocacy in Yorkshire – in order to explore the three core layers of the Big Society and to see if (or how) they fit with the practices and ambitions of our research partners and people with learning disabilities. First, we interview key stakeholders including policy makers, lawyers and disabled people’s organisations to access their views on Big Society. Second, we carry out a longitudinal analysis of policy documents and review the academic literature on Big and Civil Society. Third, we work with our three research partners to learn about what they do and how this fits with the Big Society agenda. Fourth, we analyse the data and, fifth, feed this back to our research partners and others to check and revise our findings through findings workshops. Sixth, we place a ‘researcher in residence’ into the three partner organisations in order to give something substantive back to the groups. Seventh, we share our findings through public engagement festival and conferences. Throughout the entirety of the project we are guided and evaluated by a group of Impact Experts who ensure that our research tackles key issues and that our findings and recommendations have the best practice.

Research project webpage:

Research council summary:


If you would like more information about this research project, please contact:

Dan Goodley, PhD
Professor of Disability Studies and Education
University of Sheffield
School of Education
Room 8.05
388 Glossop Road
Sheffield S10 2JA

Tel: +44(0)114 222 8185
Twitter: @disabilityuos