Qualitative Health Research Network


Kelly Fagan Robinson

Communication affordances & epistemic injustice: misunderstanding in UK disability assessments

Seminar details

Kelly Fagan Robinson gave the QHRN seminar on the 3rd February 2021 

Title: Communication affordances & epistemic injustice: misunderstanding in UK disability assessments 

Date: 3rd February 2021

Time: 14:00-15:00

Location: Zoom


In 2018, a Parliamentary review gathered 7,000 statements from disabled benefits claimants who had been subject to Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and/or Personal Independence Payments (PIP) Assessments. Half of the respondents explained that these assessments increased pain and anxiety to such an extent that they had attempted self-harm or suicide because of “shame, guilt, anxiety and paranoia the current system provokes.” By 2019 more than 1.6 million benefits judgements had been reviewed, with 3-of-4 decisions against claimants ultimately deemed incorrect and overturned. 

This exploratory paper focuses on the layers – referred to here as communication ‘affordances’ (sensu Keane 2018. Gibson 1979) – that give rise to individual understanding of what 'disability' can mean in testimonial settings. Affordances in my usage refer to the multitude of elements such as education, upbringing,  bodies, languages and a host of others influences which shape individual interpretations and categories of 'disabled' personhood. 

I propose that using discourse ethnography to document and 'map' these constitutive layers offers a key means of incorporating diverse politically, emotionally and ethically charged personal attitudes built over lifetimes, pivotal integrants in the situated nature of claimant-assessor relations collapse.  Given that the "long-term adverse effects" that legally render claimants eligible for public support under the Equalities Act 2010 can take many forms, whether mental, physical, or social, eligibility criteria and expectations of disability are subject to interpretations which do not universally align. I argue that such communication dissonances may lead to epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007. Wanderer 2017) with consequences including mental health crises, poverty and suicide. 


Kelly Fagan Robinson is a Lecturer in Medical Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Robinson’s research focuses on the ways that individual histories, bodies, sensorial hierarchies, education, and experiences of formalised care can generate epistemic dissonances and injustices for people in the UK and internationally. Her social anthropology doctoral research (UCL) investigated institutional reception of – or resistance to – deaf-centred communication practices. Her current research focuses on the ways that social relations construct and maintain categories of personhood, and how individual definitions inform knowledge-making particularly within systems of public welfare. She will commence a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship from May 2021, "Communication Faultlines on the Frontlines," examining transformations in definitions of 'support' in the UK following ten years of austerity, the introduction of algorithmic welfare assessments, as well as the recent effects of Brexit and Covid19.