and accommodation in the classroom (from the October/November
As pressure mounts for universities
to better accommodate people with disabilities, an increasingly
diverse group of scholars is drawing attention to disability
as a category of analysis. And Emory has the potential to make
a significant contribution to this field, according to Nancy
Eiesland, an assistant professor of the sociology of religion
in the Candler School of Theology and author of The Disabled
God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability.
"Emory has scholars doing work in this field in the School
of Public Health, cultural studies, and history," says Eiesland.
"I think we can make this into a place where disability
studies is both a research specialty and integrated into many
of the courses we are currently teaching."
Nationally, the field of disabilities studies is growing steadily.
New York University Press, Routledge, and University of Michigan
Press are among the publishers of new work. Columbia University
Press's recent Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,
which analyzes disability as less a property of bodies than a
product of cultural rules about bodies, is one example of this
trend. A literary critic at Howard University, Garland-Thomson
was program chair of last summer's meeting of the Society for
"You have to understand: we in disability studies see ourselves
as scholar-activists," says Garland-Thomson. For more than
a decade, the Society for Disability Studies has brought academics,
activists, and policy makers from governmental and non-governmental
organizations into dialogue with one another. While talking across
such different worlds is challenging, Garland-Thomson says, scholars
offer non-academic analysts "a conceptual foundation for
the conversation they are fostering in our culture."
That conversation is advancing by leaps and bounds as new scholarship
helps disability studies emerge as an interdisciplinary arena
like women's studies or African-American studies. "Disability
needs to be understood as a category of analysis like gender
or race," Garland-Thomson argues. "We are developing
the critical tools and historical understanding to make the intellectual
tradition around disability apprehensible."
Not surprisingly, one theme of that intellectual tradition is
the difficulty of making some disabilities visible within our
cultural framework. Representations of disability usually revolve
around a "mark" on the body that makes the disability
interpretable to others. "If you don't have the physical
symbol, as is often the case with learning disabilities for instance,"
says Garland-Thomson, "there's a tradition of not recognizing
In the past, medical and social models of disability have dominated
analysis. A catalyst for the recent growth of the field, however,
has been the passionate engagement of a broad spectrum of humanists.
Hot topics at last summer's national conference included representations
of disability in literary traditions, analysis of historical
issues surrounding disabled individuals like President Franklin
Roosevelt, and investigations of the way disability is conceived
Another sign of this field's coming of age was the success of
the first neh Summer Institute on the Humanities and Disability
Studies, held at San Francisco State University this past summer
and co-directed by Garland-Thomson. Twenty-five scholars discussed
new approaches to disability studies and curricular and program
"I was very pleased with the true interdisciplinarity of
the Institute," remarks Eiesland, one of the teaching faculty
at the five-week gathering. "Historically, disability studies
has been fairly hostile to religion and theology, but people
at this summer institute were genuinely interested."
As the field of disability studies has expanded, however, questions
have been raised about the role of personal experience of disability
in scholarship on the topic. "Nothing about us, without
us" is a frequently heard slogan. But Fordham University
professor Leonard Cassuto recently argued in the Chronicle
of Higher Education against the desire to label scholars
as either "disabled" or "non-disabled"--and
the accompanying implication that the field really "belongs
to" disabled scholars in particular.
Garland-Thomson agrees, saying she would like to see "universities
integrating disabled people and recruiting disabled faculty,
students, and administrators to boost diversity." She adds,
however, "disability studies, like all vibrant fields, must
be open to all serious scholars."
For more on issues surrounding
disability in the academy, see "Demystifying
Disabilities: Equity and accommodation in the classroom,"
in the October/ November 2000 issue of the Academic Exchange.