Hilda Smith: What addictions and disability studies can learn from each other

In brief

Hilda Smith (Photograph taken by Maria Paz

Hilda Smith, a graduate student in the Critical Disability Studies Master’s program at York University, is looking at the similarities and differences between addiction theory and disability theory.

She has found that current disability theories struggle to find a balance between the social and medical impacts of living with a disability. Hilda believes that by working together, the two fields of study might be able to develop a social-based addiction theory sooner, which would impact disability, drug policy, addiction and/or disability treatment, and stigma.

EENet has developed a Student Spotlight on Hilda’s work. Student Spotlights are brief profiles of up-and-coming student researchers.

Read it below or download the PDF.

About Hilda

Hilda Smith is currently in the Critical Disability Studies Master’s program at York University. She began the program in September 2012, after several years of working as an addiction counsellor in probation and parole offices. She made the decision to go into this field of research because she was frustrated at always having to translate addiction information and resources to her clients’ different learning styles. She thought these should all be available in a more accessible manner, but how? That’s what motivated her to go back to school.

Hilda is very interested in how to get information to people with cognitive disabilities, as she has her own learning disability and has seen a lot of clients with some form as well. As she learned more from disability studies, she realized that this field could really enhance her work in addictions.   

Project Title: Addictions and Disability Studies: What Can They Learn From Each Other

What is Hilda’s research about?

Hilda wants to find out if addiction theory and disability theory can learn from each other. Both theories have some difficulties - neither is completely polished or perfect. But as Hilda learned about disability theory, she found that in areas where addiction theory was struggling disability theory was doing really well, and vice versa. So she thought if each field is strong in the other’s weakness, they might have much to learn from each other.

While she did think that there would be some things each theory could learn from the other, she was surprised to find out they had more to gain than she had expected.

Hilda’s methods

Her methods included literature reviews and critical reviews of theories, and exploring a section of theory to understand how the community would be impacted. She began by critically reviewing an addiction theory through a disability theory lens. She then used this critical review in combination with other techniques to explore disability theory.

To complete this work she employed Marx’s theories, as fine-tuned by Bannerji in the 2011 book, Demography and democracy: Essays on nationalism, gender and ideology.1 By using Bannerji’s techniques of exploring a part to understand the whole it became clear that there was a wealth of knowledge the theories had to share with each other. The base results ignited her passion, she said, and she has chosen to further her research in this area.

The addiction theory Hilda is focusing on is Bruce Alexander’s dislocation theory. It focuses on addiction from a social perspective and looks at society and the social factors that allow addictions to develop on such a large scale.

Hilda said she really likes this theory because other addiction theories don’t really look at the social side or highlight society and communities as a factor, and instead look at the individual as the key factor. However, disability, along with race and ethnicity, came up in her critique and seemed to be missing from the theory. Hilda’s current research will further explore this theory with a lens on how this can be included as a subpopulation and how it can apply to them.

Hilda also discovered that current disability theories struggle to find a balance between the social and medical impacts of living with a disability. This was not surprising to her. What struck her was how the addiction lens, when linked together with the disability theory, allowed for understanding of difficulties with current inclusion policies that had not been clear before.

It also became clear to her that, further work in this area, when combined with community input and direction, might lead to practical and applicable recommendations for future inclusion policies. Hilda is interested in finding a solution for how this can be overcome.

Hilda’s main findings

Hilda discovered that concerns highlighted around the Addiction dislocation theory include:

  • The subject used in the theory did not consider people with disabilities;
  • The theory focuses on negative assumptions about disability to develop the argument; and
  • The theory didn’t find a way to bridge social and medical factors. 

Disability studies provided a way to move towards inclusion of people with disabilities while respecting the person’s need to have and maintain a positive community.  

The lack of communication between the disability and addiction fields resulted in limiting the development of information within the fields, which has had a direct impact on how people diagnosed with addiction, disabilities, or both are diagnosed and treated. 

Hilda believes that by working together, the two fields of study might be able to develop a social-based addiction theory sooner, which would impact disability, drug policy, addiction and/or disability treatment, and stigma.

She hopes that her research will connect both fields so they can learn from and build on each other’s strengths, instead of working in separate silos. She also hopes to continue to connect the various stakeholders in both worlds and develop a bridge to connect them.  

Her knowledge exchange activities to date include attending disability and addiction conferences and presenting posters and presentations. She is also working with the Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York University to disseminate her research. She feels that their ground work will help her bridge the gap and get the two communities talking to each other.     

What’s next for Hilda? 

Hilda will continue to work on her Masters project and hopes to further connect the addictions and disabilities fields. She believes that to ensure change happens within both the addiction and disability studies fields, the community, researchers, and policy makers must find a way to work together. She hopes to continue her research at the community level, either through community-based research opportunities or when she pursues her doctorate, as she believes that community input on theory work will be an important next step.

For more information about the study and to obtain more detailed results, please contact Hilda Smith at hsmith [at] yorku [dot] ca.


1. Bannerji, H. (2011). Demography and democracy: Essays on nationalism, gender and ideology. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Sign up for our Newsletter