Citizenship has become a central concept in discussions about the participation and inclusion of disabled people. Drawing upon life-course interviews with Swedish people having different impairments (difficulties in seeing, psychosocial difficulties, intellectual impairments and mobility difficulties) this paper tackles two issues. First, the interviewees’ experience of citizenship, apprehended as the ability to engage in the public arena, and, second, the issue of a ‘disability identity’. According to Ellison (2000), the contemporary societal context encourages individuals to engage in the pursuit, or defence, of particular interests and/or social rights. Citizenship is to be understood as a process of engagement, although solidarities are likely to be temporary in a fragmented public sphere. This understanding of citizenship takes into account the need to have access to power networks and resources to engage in the public arena. In a similar way, Lister’s (1998) dynamic reading of citizenship stresses agency, embedded in and shaped by social structures and relations. Lister also raises the issue of differences and warns against ‘false universalisms’, which exclude a part of the population. She suggests the concept of ‘politics of solidarity in difference’, which appreciates identities as manifold and fluid, and considers that people engage when they identify a clear common goal.
Relating this discussion to disability, this paper questions the existence of a ‘disability identity’, which brings people to engage in the public sphere about disability issues. This is a contested topic in Disability Studies; while various authors have stressed the existence of a strong collective identity as a founding element of the disability movement, others have observed that members of disability organisations do not identify as disabled, have underlined the fragmentation of the disability movement and have questioned whether people with mental health conditions should be considered as ‘disabled’.