Disability and the Academy

A field comes of age

By Amy Benson Brown

Demystifying Disabilities
Equity and accommodation in the classroom (from the October/November 2000 issue)


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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 Disability Studies.

"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 the disability."

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 and theorized.

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 development.

"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.