Why is critical interaction with disability missing from academia?
Montreal, March 29, 2016 — Class, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexuality — all established topics in the discourses of sociology, literature, communications, history and political science. Glaringly absent from that list? Disability.
“The lack of disability studies in academic discussions and research reflects the ableist attitudes of society as a whole,” says Owen Chapman, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and chair of the Critical Disability Studies Working Group (CDSWG), housed in Concordia’s newly created Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology.
“We’re working to change that.”
On May 4 and 5, 2016, the CDSWG hosts a symposium, Inviting Movements: Emerging Critical Disability and Deaf Perspectives and Practices.
The CDSWG is made up of an interdisciplinary team of scholars working to highlight how ableist assumptions about the body, cognition and perception promote a limited range of understanding what it means to be human.
The group first came together in September 2014, to fill a need being felt province-wide. Their goal was simple: shift the discourse of disability away from a medical/rehabilitation perspective towards a critical one.
“There were no formal programs on disability studies in Quebec,” says Laurence Parent, a PhD candidate in the humanities, and a member of the CDSWG.
“This is why we exist — we couldn’t find a home for people working on the topic, so we created a home for ourselves,” she says. “We wanted to make that connection, that disability is political — it’s not just about rehab.”
She explains that there are many reasons why a critical interaction with disability has been missing from academia.
“One of them is that academia is not necessarily accessible for disabled people, in terms of physical access but also in terms of the literacies that exist,” says Parent.
“Access to education itself is a challenge, add to that an ableist conception of what is valued as knowledge, what is judged a publication. It is a major challenge for disabled people to become involved in academia as something other than participants in research in general.”
Looking to counter those attitudes, the group began meeting monthly, and soon experienced its first major success with the screening of Jason DaSilva’s film, When I Walk. For Chapman, the event was a catalyst for the CDSWG.
“Setting up the event and working with the various departments and offices within the university was an important turning point because it allowed for a type of coordinated diffusion of presence for considerations around people with disabilities. It also highlighted different accessibility issues within the university,” he recalls.
Now in its second year of existence, the group continues to grow. Part of that growth is expanded membership in the CDSWG, which now has a dedicated space at the university, where scholars can come together to interact and collaborate.
One new group member, Danielle Peers, a Banting postdoctoral fellow in communication studies who specializes in critical disability studies, says that Concordia was her first choice for her research because, in her opinion, it is producing some of the most exciting scholarship in the field.
“A lot of the leadership in the group comes from graduate students like Laurence, who are also local activists and practising artists, leading to deeply grounded, community-based, creative and generative research around disability,” says Peers.
“I felt that I had a lot to learn from this group in terms of exciting new methodologies, theories and practices that can enable researchers to work in and with local communities in order to both imagine and materialize meaningful change.”
It’s Chapman’s hope that increasing interest in the group will help place the CDSWG at the forefront of critical disability studies in Quebec — and Canada — by providing fertile soil for faculty with critical disability studies backgrounds to expand their work, and to institutionalize the practice pedagogically.
“There are 40 plus members of the group, from around the university,” says Chapman.
“And there are more and more researchers coming from other institutions, as well as people who are not necessarily affiliated with a university, but very active within the community.”
The upcoming symposium is an invitation to those working from critical perspectives within disability, Deaf, neurodiversity and other social justice movements to discuss ideas of disability, art and movement, based around a screening of Simi Linton’s documentary, Invitation to Dance. The symposium is free and open to the public.
Partners in research: Concordia University’s Critical Disability Studies Working Group is part of the Community and Differential Mobilities Research Cluster of the Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology co-led by Guiliana Cucinelli and Owen Chapman.