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To what extent has my experience as a nondisabled person living in a society which has routinely excluded disabled people, hidden them from view and represented them in ways which are patronizing and demeaning, been absorbed into the way I conceptualized the research? It would be difficult to measure the impact of the interaction between personal history and the wider social context in terms of the development of research questions and practices; but as Skeggs argues ‘... our social location, our situatedness in the world will influence how we speak, see, hear and know’.

With respect to that world. It is therefore impossible to proceed far with a discussion of space or time without invoking the term ‘place’. (Harvey, 1996, p. 208) Places are both externally identifiable as part of a social landscape, and individually constructed through personal experience. Thus, the notion of ‘prison’ or ‘factory’ is both public and private. Places take on mythological statuses which grow up around perceptions and beliefs concerning people and practices associated with them.

But, as Okely and Callaway observe: Monographs have too often been presented, then read as definitive and timeless, rather than selective and historically contingent. Ethnography requires a personal lens … (Okely and Callaway, 1992, p. xii–xiii) The idea of contingency is central to an understanding of the role of context and self in the construction and interpretation of events and processes. In the example given above in which a teacher, approaching retirement, describes his work life and how he became a teacher in special schools, the development of his professional life is contingent on events in his personal life and on broader historical conditions and social and policy making responses to disability and difference.

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