March 1, 2004

Humanities, disability studies cross at conference

By Eric Rangus

Emory is co-sponsoring "Disability Studies and the University," the first nationwide conference to address the humanities and disability studies, March 5-7 at the Emory Conference Center.

Building on the Feminism and Legal Theory Program's disability workshop earlier in the week (see story), this wide-ranging conference will explore how disability studies can shape learning environments. Co-sponsoring the conference with Emory is the Modern Language Association (MLA).

"Disability studies is a particularly important interdisciplinary field to be explored at a university like Emory," said Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, associate professor of women's studies and the faculty conference sponsor. She has taught and researched in the area of disability studies for more than 12 years and is co-editor of the 2002 book Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities.

"It engages and links the humanities, social sciences and health sciences in interdisciplinary conversation about an aspect of human life that is universal," Garland-Thomson continued. "A humanities perspective expands the view of disability as not only a medical problem. It adds to our understanding by revealing the pervasive presence of disability in art, literature and philosophy, as well as the way the idea of disability has shaped attitudes."

Emory presenters include Garland-Thomson ("Disability and Representation"); Nancy Eiseland, associate professor of the sociology of religion ("Pious Crippledom: Disability Studies in Religion"); and Wendy Newby, director of faculty resources for inclusive instruction ("Voices of Disability Inside the Curriculum"). A total of 30 scholars will be taking part.

Newby said she was surprised but pleased that she was invited to make a presentation, since she will be offering an applied-science perspective rather than a humanities one. "I'll be talking about instructional issues that faculty face with students with disabilities and some new ideas to deal with these issues," Newby said.

One of those ideas, Newby said, is Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), which was created at North Carolina State University. UDI is dedicated to universal access to everyone, including those with disabilities. For instance, UDI suggests doorknobs be made level instead of round so that someone without the use of his hand could open a door with an elbow.

Following an address by disabled-persons advocate Harriet McBryde Johnson at 4 p.m. on Friday, March 5, in the conference center, "Disability Studies and the University" will formally begin at 7:30 p.m. Presentations continue Saturday, March 6, at 9 a.m. and run through 5:30 p.m. Sunday's calendar begins with workshops at 9 a.m. and wraps up with the final plenary from 10:30 a.m.-noon. Discussion group topics include "Defining Disability," "Developing Disability Studies Programs and Minors," "Historicizing Disability" and "Disability Across the Curriculum."

"One focus of the conference is to revisit historical figures whose disabilities enhanced rather than hindered their societal contributions" Garland-Thomson said. "Most people don't know, for example, that Monet's eyesight slowly diminished over the course of his life, which likely contributed to his unique impressionistic perspective. Likewise, we could view Franklin Delano Roosevelt's use of a wheelchair not as an irrelevant or private matter, but as the possible source of his commitment to fairness and equality."

Registration for members of the Emory community is $89 per day. The registration fee includes meals for each day. For a full schedule with specific times and speakers, visit

Conference attendees who may require interpreters or may have access issues are asked to contact Karin Bagnall at the MLA ( Other questions about the conference can be addressed to Garland-Thomson (