Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"A Project to Bend the Arc of History" (ASA 2011)

“Transforming the University Curriculum with Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Approaches.”

Mike Rembis, Corrine Bertram, Allison Carey, Susan Burch, Josh Lukin, Ann Keefer

An excerpt from the proposal that got the panel accepted: The panel will explore three recent disability studies initiatives at public universities and discuss how, in a time of limited resources, each has imagined and effected the introduction of disability studies into the curriculum. All three programs present themselves as part of, or logical extensions of, older social justice models, using the vocabulary of diversity, marginality, equality, and privilege; so each has set itself the challenge of maintaining disability’s distinctiveness as a social category and avoiding the elisions and distortions that accompany easy analogies to other oppressed groups. But in most respects, the three initiatives differ immensely in their approach. One encourages the introduction of disability content into a university’s core courses and explicitly seeks to support students with disabilities; one proposes a broad goal of raising awareness to identify and transform oppressive institutions and environments; one is creating a disability studies minor in a social science department, using extant thought on power and stratification to integrate disability into its curriculum. The respondent is a prominent disability historian who heads a Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, demonstrating that disability scholarship can be integrated into areas that formerly focused on other kinds of social identity.

The insight that I got from this panel was that it’s impossible for me to take thorough notes on a panel that I have organized and am on. Especially when, despite my partner’s repeated efforts to make sure in advance that the room was set up for it, there was no working microphone and no amplification for the sound on the video we projected. So we showed some of the video on this page and read the captions aloud to make it all accessible; and our copanelists gave great presentations about what they were doing at their universities, Shippensburg and Buffalo, and how they were getting support for such projects in hard times. The notes I have mostly record the enthusiastic and encouraging remarks of our moderator/respondent, Disability History star Susan Burch, and interesting lines from the q & a.

Burch said that the panel and the work it described address a key concern: how we talk about disability. People with disabilities constitute the largest minority in the world: the number of people with identifiable disabilities exceeds the population of the U.S. Disability Studies has been around for decades and addresses a growing community, as disabilities are created by war, poverty, and the other usual suspects. There have been Society for Disability Studies panels on how we build the discipline as a system, as a presence, in a world where institutions of higher learning are still wildly ableist. We are involved in a project to bend the arc of history, and for it we need sustainability, community, and coalition; we need assets and the invitation to be more thoughtful in our actions. What the panel is doing reflects the issues Disability Studies deals with all the time: all of us are so deeply interested in praxis — how do we apply this knowledge we’ve accumulated? Our institutions of higher learning are vastly diverse in terms of access, power, and privilege; so who has expertise? Who’s getting trained and how? What can maintain a university’s or an academic movement’s sustained relationship to the larger disability community? Knowledge is so “siloed”; and the way we think about disability cannot be cut off from other identity categories, nor should it be modeled on a single older movement.

The twelve or fourteen attendees in the audience were very involved in the discussion. A graduate student from San Francisco State asked a question having to do with race, and ensuring that race is not a black/white issue: she looks in vain for herself (i.e. Latinas) in disability scholars and research. I remarked that even the battle to make disability a black/white issue is still a struggle: what would one do, I asked, if one wanted to talk to higher-ranking scholars whose DS syllabi were exclusively white authors’ memoirs? Oy! (I think I actually used that interjection, inadvertently, because there was audience laughter) With Ann’s encouragement, I noted that one place where you could find engagement with disability and a wide range of racial identities was in the arts and mentioned, for example, novelists such as Ana Castillo and poets like Johnson Cheu.

A guy from the audience, trained in women’s history and feminist theory, noted that 85% of disability is acquired, from landmines, bullets, pregnancy, and the like. Mike’s global perspective is important in the light of such facts. Corrine has tried to address immigration and refugees and how the U.S. is involved in their refugee status. A woman from the University of New Mexico wanted to address the lack of inclusivity on the part of disability activists: they were, she said, long unwelcoming toward the Deaf, for example. How do we struggle productively with differences? More and more people, Burch and others pointed out, are entering the Deaf/disability dialogue. Amy Ferrell noted that nonetheless, other groups are still struggling with the stigma attached to claiming disability like the Deaf used to: the fat, for example, do not want to claim disability or even invoke analogies to disability ever.

Kathleen Brian from George Washington U remarked on how Susan Wendell’s and Margaret Price’s books begin in confessional mode, legitimating their authority with identity-claims, and asked about the necessity or drawbacks of that tactic. Allison said we need to be very socially aware of who the messenger is and we have to be aware of shutting out voices. I agreed with what I took to be Brian’s point, that self-disclosure should not be an imperative, and then told the story of a meeting five years ago, when Diane Bryen, then the director of Temple’s Institute on Disabilities, arranged a meeting with me after having seen my Black Disability Studies article in the Temple Faculty Herald and, as we sat down to talk, observed, “You’re not black.” You gotta teach these things with the human resources you have, even if it means that the three-dimensional person the students see in front of every class doesn’t always clearly belong to the social identity under discussion, or that of the authors/performers/artists whose work is being discussed.


Jess Lewis-Turner said...

Something I've been struggling with as I write about the history of "hermaphrodite" bodies is how to implement disability theory and critiques of compulsory able-bodiedness without losing the specificity of the historical term "hermaphrodite." Thus the comment about struggling "productively with differences" really intrigued me. This ends up being the problem for a lot of interdisciplinary efforts: how do we include everyone (in terms of discipline, in terms of identification) who wants to come in, or who we want to come in?

It's interesting (I've just read Emily Martin's Woman in the Body) that I'm inclined to use words like "productive," too. There's certainly a queer sort of capitalism at work in our understandings of how the disability discipline should "work."

Thanks so much for doing these, by the way! I'm off to read the one you recommended next. :D

Josh said...

JLT, I think my "Black Disability Studies" report addresses some of those issues: in a case like that, the struggles that "we" face to include everyone who we want to come in involve misconceptions on both sides that take a lot of work to deal with. I expect that cripping hermaphrodites involved different problems.

Not a fan of Emily Martin, but not a fan of the way "productive" is used at Hopkins either (Steve can tell you about that!). I use it more or less the way it's used in Times Square Red Times Square Blue.