Prof. Dr. Reinie Cordier Interview for International Day for Persons with Disabilities

Here, in this Prof. Dr. Reinie Cordier interview, we explore his expert opinion on the obstacles faced by persons with disabilities, in light of the pandemic.

Prof. Dr. Reinie Cordier interview

Following on from International Day for Persons with Disabilities, which was held last week, I sat down with the Editor-in-Chief of MDPI’s Disabilities, Prof. Dr. Reinie Cordier, who is a professor of child mental health, welfare and wellbeing at the University of Northumbria to learn more about the journal. Below is the Reinie Cordier interview.

What sparked your initial interest in your field of research?

I have worked clinically in the disability field for many years. This involved working with children with various mental health disabilities and, later on, also with adults with other forms of physical disabilities. Before I entered academia, I worked with people with disabilities as a therapist and as a manger of a service. So, I would say it was then a natural flow to focus on the disability field in academia.

What do you believe is the importance of your research?

I think it is about creating awareness of the challenges that many people with disabilities face on a daily basis, and developing and promoting evidence through research to support policy changes within government departments, so that all the mechanisms are in place to better support people with disabilities living in communities.

The main theme of your research is the promotion of the social inclusion of children suffering with developmental disorders, developing evidenced-based psychosocial interventions and instrument development. Would you be able to tell me a little bit more about this?

Children with developmental disabilities constitute a large heterogenous group. They include children with autism; children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; children with conduct problems; and of course, those with acquired forms of disabilities, including psychological acquired forms of disabilities, for instance, children who have experienced trauma and abuse and have developed mental health conditions as a result of this. A large part of the research that I do involves developing interventions that promote these children to acquire skills to develop friendships and, therefore, to be more socially included within their schools, in their daily lives, and within their communities. Very often, for some of these mental health conditions, such as autism, having social difficulties is inherent to the condition itself, so they need extra support and techniques to help them develop those skills that typically developing children would naturally develop by themselves in the natural course of life.

In general, would you say that children with developmental disabilities are receiving the support they need?

I think there have been huge advancements in recent years. If I think back to 20 years ago, for instance, the supports that were in place for children with autism were really quite limited. Now, governments, at least governments in economically advanced countries, have invested considerable funds into providing supports, not only to ensure early diagnosis, but also for ongoing intervention.

This is important because the earlier we can detect children with specific types of disabilities, the earlier we can intervene and provide support so that the impacts are not compounded by a late diagnosis. So, I think many countries, including the UK, have made great strides in improving the supports for children with disabilities. Of course, there’s still a large amount of work to be done, and this is not to say that all the services that we have in place are fully adequate.

There’s always room for improvement, but there has been much progress compared to what we had previously. But I also think that there have been great advancements in societies’ understanding of disabilities and, therefore, tolerance towards people with disabilities, whereby, because we’ve created greater awareness of what they involve and what the lived experiences are of people with disabilities, they are, to a much larger extent, socially included in their daily lives and accepted as equal members of society.

Another important focus of your research is on ensuring that people from different populations and social strata are able to participate, remain engaged, are socially connected and live healthy lives. Can you also tell me a bit more about this?

So, this speaks to the recognition that different people in different parts of society across the world are really disadvantaged. For instance, I do research in Africa around children who are born HIV positive, and are developmentally impacted by this in terms of both their physical and cognitive development, as well as other aspects of development. Moreover, it speaks to how that impacts their daily lives and how we can improve this whilst also developing tolerance and acceptance within society, as there is still a lot of stigma associated with conditions like this within those communities.

What I’m saying here is that there are areas in the world where, because of social disadvantage, people with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged because of the lack of resources and supports and, very often, a lack of policies by government departments in supporting those with disabilities. This is also the case in economically advanced countries, where different segments within our communities are disadvantaged.

Very often, many forms of disabilities are invisible to the eye in the sense that, for instance, those who have experienced trauma and abuse might have developed mental health conditions—like post traumatic stress disorder—or attachment difficulties, which impact them throughout life. So, we need to realise that we should have a particular focus on those who are vulnerable and look after them through our research, which needs to translate into government policies and, in turn, changes to service provision and practices to improve outcomes for them.

What led you to becoming the EiC of the journal, and what have you learned about your field of expertise during this time?

I’ve always thought that journals within the field of disabilities were fragmented, with some journals having a very narrow focus; for example, some journals only focus on very specific disability types, whilst other forms of research in the field of disabilities, such as developing disability theory, did not have a particular home.

So, for me, the new journal offered a unique opportunity to bring all of the research on disabilities together under one roof, and furthermore, I think the journal has the support of a modern and progressive publishing house, which I think made it all the more attractive.

Moreover, I think the journal has managed to attract world-class scholars to form the editorial board, which I think gives it esteem and legitimacy, and for me, the challenge of setting us off on the journey is what made it attractive to become the Editor in Chief. I think if I were to narrow it down to one thing in terms of what I’ve learned, it’s that, through interacting with scholars globally in the field of disabilities, there is enormous goodwill among academics and researchers to better the field, which I think is quite reassuring.

What have been the major advances in your field in recent years (and how have MDPI papers contributed)?

I think there’s a few things that stand out. The first would be the recognition that disabilities are not only focused on the limitations that people experience, but the shift has been towards a focus on people’s potential and towards social inclusion in societies, which we did not have a number of years back, at least not to the same extent, and that people with disabilities can not only be productive members of society but can actually excel, and there’s quite a number of examples of this.

Regarding advances around disability theory, the way that we as a society think about disabilities as a construct and the way that people live and have lived experience with disability has shifted towards the construct of enablement, towards what we need to do to support people to live normal everyday lives. And then of course, there have been a lot of technological advancements in promoting functional independence for people with disabilities, for instance, in improving people’s mobility and mobility within their communities, their ability to communicate with others, and a range of advancements around technology that have really helped people with disabilities live productive healthy lives.

As the journal is really quite new still, we are currently focusing on creating awareness of the journal, but we have already received quite a high number of high-quality papers, particularly around disability theory, which is also very reassuring.

Would you say that papers and Special Issues surrounding disability theory are particularly important at the moment?

I think so, because, for instance, one of our Special Issues, Disability and COVID-19,  has a particular focus on the impact of COVID-19 on people living with disabilities, because, of course, it did have a disproportionate effect on people with disabilities, more so than the rest of society, so I think focusing some of our research towards that is a really important aspect.

One of our other Special Issues, Inclusive Education: The Impact on Students with Disabilities Now and in the Future, has a specific focus on social participation and inclusive educational practices, so there’s been a really big shift in recent years within schools to ensure that as many children with disabilities as possible are fully integrated into schools and get to experience all the aspects of school life.

School life is not just about learning materials; it’s got to do with making friends, learning social skills, learning how to interact, dealing with conflict, extramural activities, all of which help to shape our children, and there’s a much greater focus on making sure that children with and without disabilities have all of those experiences in equal measure. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected persons with disabilities?

I think COVID-19 has been tremendously detrimental to, and has had a disproportionate effect on, people with disabilities, for instance, in terms of service provision and having limited access to services. Particularly at the height of COVID-19, it was very difficult to access homes, and many social care facilities, and similarly disability care facilities, have been affected in terms of whole institutions being impacted by COVID-19, and of course this has had a huge impact on both mortality and morbidity among people with disabilities.

Additionally, of course, people with disabilities very often have pre-existing physical and mental health vulnerabilities, and so if you add COVID-19 on top of that, it has a disproportionate impact. For instance, those who were immunocompromised prior to COVID-19 are particularly vulnerable to death from COVID-19, and we must consider the compounding impact that that has in terms of social isolation. Social isolation is a big problem for some people with disabilities in terms of integrating into society; not only that, but the lack of quality friendships that they can access and, of course, the lockdowns that we’ve had have compounded the impact of social isolation on people with disabilities around the world, and as with the rest of society, this has also had a detrimental impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Awareness of COVID-19’s impact

I think, importantly, what people don’t realise and where we would like to create a lot more awareness is that COVID-19 in and of itself has led to disabilities, meaning that many people now live with long COVID, which means that they have disabilities that they did not have before: disabilities as a result of pulmonary problems, cardiac problems, problems with fatigue and, of course, problems surrounding mental health. So, there’s been a whole range of impacts on people who did not have disabilities prior to COVID-19 but now live with disabilities.

And would you say that this effect has been particularly exacerbated in certain countries?

Absolutely, so it would have had a much greater impact in countries that lack resources in comparison to countries that have access to an abundance of resources. So, certainly disadvantaged communities would have been disproportionately affected, and we are also still working out how to treat some of the conditions resulting from long COVID, including fatigue. Dealing with ‘brain fog’ has proven to be a really big challenge, because it doesn’t seem to be going away and, of course, this has had a huge impact on people in terms of their ability to continue working, if they have jobs with high cognitive demand and are not able to focus or concentrate for long periods of time. This has really had a detrimental impact on many people, which cuts across society, regardless of social strata.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is ‘Not All Disabilities Are Visible’. What does this mean to you?

I think conventionally, and when I say conventionally, I mean maybe 20–30 years ago, a lot of the focus on disabilities and disability research has been on people with physical disabilities and not those with other forms of disabilities, putting people with disabilities that are not visible at an even greater disadvantage in terms of support. I think, for me, this theme is about recognising that there are many forms of disabilities, not just those that are visible to the eye, for instance, those with mental health disabilities and those with intellectual disabilities, and that these groups deserve an equal amount of support and attention.

Prof. Dr. Reinie Cordier interview and more

We are grateful to for this Prof. Dr. Reinie Cordier interview and for his highly valuable work. We have plenty more interviews here on the Blog.