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Critical Disability Studies


Critical disability studies considers how institutions, cities or societies 'dis-able' people systemically and socially as well as looking into how the body and impairment can critically be incorporated into the discussions of disability and disablement. While critical disability studies has had a major presence in the United Kingdom for several years, and the United States more recently, it is relatively new to Canada.  Traversing various domains, a few of the issues to be discussed include such questions as, What is critical disability studies? What are the distinctions between work on 'disability' and work on illness?  What are the conditions, both in and outside of the educational institution, that construct perceptions and actions of disability? How might technology be used to assist in social integration and change?  The working group will hold 6 meetings during the year. Faculty and students are welcome.

The team is comprised of an interdisciplinary team of scholars, students and creators from at least six different departments representing the Humanities, Social Sciences and Fine Arts: Communication Studies, Art Education, History, Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Educational Technology and Applied Human Sciences.  Our past and present research addresses the important contribution of a  critical and creative disability perspective- and disabled people-  to social, political, and cultural life. Together, we use the working group as a platform for the exploration of both inter and trans-disciplinary crossovers and points of disjuncture.

While our research comes from these intersecting domains and concerns, the working group is comprised of individuals who have so far been working in isolation from each other at Concordia. The working group meetings are a space, and dedicated block of time, where researchers, graduate, undergraduate students, community activists, and practitioners who are committed to critical disability studies, can meet to discuss their current research and develop ideas for future collaboration. Our working group, under the rubric and with the sponsorship with CISSC provides us with a means to overcome working in isolation to create a vibrant series of intertwined events – invited speakers, discussions of readings, presentations of our own work – that we hope will also amplify the on-going presence of a CDS network at Concordia.


Owen Chapman, Department of Communication Studies

What is Critical Disability Studies?

Critical Disability Studies (CDS) is a radically interdisciplinary field engaged in the transformation of disability studies into a critical paradigm. Critical Disability Studies brings together a variety of theoretical perspectives and multidisciplinary approaches, intersectional queries and attempts at overcoming ontological distinctions that have dominated early disability studies.  As our working bibliography indicates, Critical Disability Studies tends to consider ‘disability’ not only as a physical, neurological or biomechanical problem to be rectified by medical treatment and interventions. In this medical model, disability is often reduced to ‘impairment’ and seen as a condition, property or quality of individuals. CDS understands the complex interconnection between medicine, society and bodies. There is an important corpus of writing in CDS that critiques the particular shortcomings of the medical model and offers new ways of thinking that can interweave impairment and disability so that impairment is not left to the sole jurisdiction of medicine.

Critical disability studies considers how institutions, cities or societies ‘dis-able’ people systemically and socially as well as looking into how the body and impairment can critically and creatively be incorporated into the discussions of disability and disablement. One of the key points of the field is to underscore the ways that normative assumptions about the body, cognition and perception operate on ‘able-ist’ assumptions that promote a limited range of understanding of what it means to be human. Critical disability studies understands disability as ‘relational’, approaches the study of disability from an interdisciplinary perspective and questions cultural narratives and discourses that posit disability as inherently tragic for individuals and families. How might we work from within our distinctive coporeal, neurological and intellectual differences to create, as Fiona Kuomori Campbell writes, “a new disability imaginary?” 

Condsidered in this way, critical disability studies involves a plurality of methodologies, including participatory action research, rhetorical and discursive analyses, intersectional approaches that take up gender, race and class as they co-exist with disability, historical readings of disability, environmental assessments, performance-based methods, and phenomenological approaches. Critical disability studies not only tends to place the experiences of those with disabilities front and centre but also seeks to disclose the ideological underpinnings of the often unquestioned presumption and priviledge of able-bodied-ness. Like other critical movements such as feminism and critical race studies, it politicizes the field of disability studies.

While critical disability studies has had a major presence in the United Kingdom and the United States for several years, it is relatively new to Canada – one program exists at York University, Toronto. Although not directly named as Critical Disability Studies, there are three other programs in existence: one at Ryerson, one at the University of Manitoba, and another at the University of Winnipeg. Academic programs in Critical Disability Studies are non-existent in Quebec. This working group gives Critical Disability Studies a formal academic presence in the city and province alongside the many activist organizations and informal networks that do exist. Creating this working group as a shared project allows us to question how our respective fields treat disability from an interdisciplinary purview and offers the opportunity to learn from each other.

Traversing these different domains, the issues to be discussed include:

  1. What is critical disability studies? How has it been addressed in our disciplines?
  2. Theoretical vocabularies: explorations of able-ism and dis-ablism.
  3. What role might new media play in CDS? How might technology be used to assist in social inclusion and change?
  4. What are the distinctions between work on ‘disability’ and work on illness?
  5. What are the intersections between CDS and the arts?
  6. What are the conditions, both in and outside of the educational institution, that construct perceptions and actions of disability?
  7. What new methodologies might be developed and brought to current CDS because of our interdisciplinary backgrounds. 

Faculty: Kim Sawchuk, Owen Chapman, Lorrie Blair, Barbara Lorenzkowski, Giuliana Cucinelli, Shannon Hebblethwaite, Juan Carlos Castro, Steven High, Janis Timm-Bottos, Thomas Strickland, Patrick McDonagh, Mia Cosalvo, (Sabbatical 2014-2015 - Shira Avni, Ann-Louis Davidson)

Post-doctoral Researchers and Associates: Arseli Dokumaci, Tamar Tembek, Jaqueline Wallace, Shauna Janssen

Graduate Students and Activists: Laurence Parent, Aimee Louw, Katie Jung, Ashley McAskill, Jade Owen, Eric Powell, Michele Macklem, Beth Forrestall, Somi Lee, Alyse Tunnell

Affiliated Researchers and Students: Magdalena Olszanowski, Antonia Hernandez, Jay Dolmage

Faculty and Post-Doctoral Researchers – bios

Kim Sawchuk is the Co-director of the Mobile Media Lab (MML) at Concordia, Concordia University Research Chair in Mobile Media Studies and is a feminist media studies scholar. Sawchuk has worked in collaboration with artists and scholars who use new media technologies and creative means to document and critically examine how cities such as Montreal systematically protect able-ist architectures. The MML website has a new section on accessibility in Montreal, which is expanding as a part of its mandate. Sawchuk is committed to exploring the intersections between CDS and mobility studies.

Lorrie C. Blair and Juan Carlos Castro, from Art Education are considering how disability in art educational contexts is often approached from a therapeutic perspective (eg. art as healing or art as providing the only positive affect in schooling environments). They seek to critically examine this long held perception in art educational practice and believe that it is through interdisciplinary inquiry that we are able to better shift these perceptions and offer new critical insights to the field of art education. Blair's teaching and research interests are censorship, outsider and folk art, Irish popular culture, and popular visual culture, with a particular focus on the gendered meanings and practices of body modification. Specifically, she interested in the role popular culture plays in teaching women about cosmetic surgery, piercing and tattoos. Juan Carlos Castro's primary research interest is in how mobile media shifts learning and teaching in the arts. His interest in critical disability studies arises from the broader question of mobility and learning in the arts, while also addressing a significant need to rethink common perceptions of disabilities in art education practice. Both Blair and Castro are involved in the teaching and research of pre-service art educators’ experience of schooling and teaching. 

Shira Avni (Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema) is an award winning animation filmmaker. Avni's films Petra's Poem (2012), Tying Your Own Shoes (2009), John and Michael (2005), and From Far Away (2000) have garnered over 30 grants and awards. Her films address questions of difference and social justice in ways that gently break down the viewer's habitual barriers. Avni's current research explores the intersection of disability, identity and independence through a combination of animation and documentary media and collaborative, community-based animation films.

Steven High is Canada Research Chair in Oral History and Co-Director of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. His research spans a number of subject areas, including the study of living histories. It is this interest narrated lives, as well as his study of war, genocide and deindustrialization that brings him into this proposal. He is primarily interested in how people themselves live with and understand their disabilities and politically mobilize against able-ism. He is interested in the ways in which mobile media and oral history methodology is being or might be integrated into Critical Disability Studies. Steven has published a number of books including Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement (2014) and Remembering Mass Violence (2014).

Ann-Louise Davidson uses collaborative action research methods as a means to understand and explain how users experience technologies. In non-educational settings, she studies the impact of digital technologies on the social integration of minorities and marginalized populations. In the past few years she has been involved with several charitable organizations to help adults living with intellectual disabilities develop new capabilities.

Dr. Shannon Hebblethwaite, PhD is Associate Professor in Concordia University’s Department of Applied Human Sciences. Shannon holds Bachelor of Arts in both Psychology and Recreation and Leisure Studies from the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo, a Masters in Recreation and Leisure Studies from the University of Waterloo and a PhD in Family Relations from the University of Guelph. Her research and teaching focuses on social inclusion and the impact of leisure on well-being in a variety of contexts, including older adults, three-generation families, first-time mothers, and individuals with disabilities. Emphasizing participatory approaches in her work, Shannon’s applied research has resulted in interdisciplinary collaborations with scholars in family relations, political science, and communication studies and she has engaged therapeutic recreation practitioners as co-researchers on a number of research projects. She integrates her research with her teaching in the areas of qualitative research methods, leisure and aging, and therapeutic recreation practice. Shannon is a researcher with the Centre de recherche et d'expertise en gérontologie sociale (CREGÉS), an interdisciplinary, applied, community-based research centre where she leads the Seniors as Social Actors research axis and serves on the executive committee. She is Associate Editor of the Therapeutic Recreation Journal and led the Interdisciplinary Working Group on Qualitative Research Methods at Concordia. She served on the board of Therapeutic Recreation Ontario (TRO) and is a member of the Leisure and Aging Research Group, the World Leisure Organization Committee on Access and Inclusion, and the Alzheimer Society of Montreal Education Committee.

Barbara Lorenzkowski is an Associate Professor in the Department of History. As a cultural historian of North America, her research interests have straddled both sides of the Canadian-American border. Her first book Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850-1914 (University of Manitoba Press, 2010) is an exercise in historical eavesdropping that examines public conversations on ethnicity and modernity, community and nation, public culture and trans-nationalism through the history of spoken language and popular musical life.

Thomas Strickland is a part-time faculty member in the Department of Art History at Concordia University and the Azrieli School of Architecture at Carleton University. He was a fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 2009 and is an alumnus of the Health Care, Technology and Place, CIHR Strategic Research Initiative at the University of Toronto. His research is broadly concerned with the co-creation of bodies and the built environment, with an emphasis on healthcare settings, exclusionary practices that arise with the production of medical knowledge,

and the relationship between urban formations and migration. Connected to this research, Strickland’s artistic and curatorial collaborations explore how small, slow spatial actions can have a big impact on urban politics and design. Currently he is working with Concordia’s Topological Media Lab, McGill University, and the Montréal Children’s Hospital Foundation to develop a new media environment that responds to the experiences of young patients. Recent projects include, a community-based art action, funded by Concordia University and the Darling Foundry, that exposed the injustice of the Griffintown re-development, and a residency with Jiwar Creació i Societat, Barcelona, where he worked with LGBTQ refugees exploring their symbolic and physical appropriation of urban space.

Arseli Dokumacı is a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, Department of Social Studies of Medicine. She is also affliated with the Mobile Media Lab. Arseli received her PhD degree in performance studies from Aberystwyth University in 2012, following an MA in Film and Communication from Bahcesehir University and a BA in translation studies from Bogazici University. Her PhD was funded by the Department of Theatre, Film and TV Studies and as a doctoral student; she was the recipient of Overseas Research Students Award. In her PhD project entitled “Misfires that matter: Invisible disabilities and performances of the everyday”, Arseli investigated everyday practices in relation to mobility-related pain and impairments. As part of this practice-led project, she created a two-hour ethnographic documentary on the everyday lives of people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Patrick McDonagh is a part-time faculty member in Concordia’s Department of English, and is the author of Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool UP, 2008). His research explores the relationship between cultural representations and philosophical and medical notions of intelligence and intellectual disability, with an emphasis on the socio-symbolic labour performed by ideas such as intellectual disability, autism and precursor notions such as “idiocy.” Recent book chapters include “Autism and Modernism: A Genealogical Exploration” in Autism and Representation (Routledge 2008) and “Autism in the Age of Empathy” in Critical Autism Studies (forthcoming, Minnesota UP). He is also a co-founder (& current board member) of the Spectrum Society for Community Living, based in Vancouver, BC.

Assistant Professor Janis Timm-Bottos is an artist, licensed physiotherapist, board certified art therapist and an interdisciplinary scholar with a sustained research practice investigating the community art studio as a therapeutic site for individual, family and community healing. She is founder of ArtStreet, an art studio with Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless,  OFFCenter Community Arts Project, an arts-based public homeplace in downtown Albuquerque and "Kitchen Table Arts," which was housed in a thrift store in Nelson, BC and spawned "Children of the Seams" a youth collective that remakes fashion from discarded clothing. A presenter in both local and international venues, Janis advocates for the return of small, welcoming, free community art spaces located between neighbourhoods. She has organized over 65 community art exhibits including: Roses Aren't Red, The Art of Being Homeless, Hats and Shoes: Community Soul Work, Five and Dime, The Feminist Paper Doll Show, Trust the Hand the Makes it Round and initiated Albuquerque's annual "We Art the People" Folk Art Festival. Her current research and training sites include a storefront in St. Henri, "La Ruche d'Art: Community Studio and Science Shop."  Through this venue she intends to teach a therapeutic studio model and encourage a network of art hives to develop throughout the rest of Quebec and across Canada. Janis completed a Ph.D in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, an MA in Art Education/ Art Therapy, and a B.S. Physical Therapy.

Jacqueline Wallace is a HASTAC Scholar and recent graduate of the Joint Doctoral Program in Communication at Concordia University. Her dissertation, entitled Handmade 2.0: Women, DIY Networks and the Cultural Economy of Craft, focused on gender, creative work and digital economies of cultural production. Her interests in critical disability studies look at questions of design, social media and advocacy for children with disabilities. Wallace is also an advisory board member of the Fembot Collective, a scholarly collaboration promoting research on gender, new media, and technology and publisher of the ADA journal.

An art historian and performing artist by training, Tamar Tembeck’s research examines representations of illness and/or disability in the visual and performing arts, as well as in new media environments. She curated Auto/Pathographies, a group exhibition shown at the Kunstpavillon (Innsbruck) and at OBORO (Montréal), which was documented in a catalogue published by Sagamie édition d’art in 2014. As a performer, Tamar worked in health care environments (adult and children’s hospitals, as well as long-term care facilities) with the organisation Jovia from 2003 to 2008. Since 2012, she has been working on diverse topics pertaining to media and democracy within Media@McGill, a hub of interdisciplinary research at McGill University.

Students and Activists – bios

Antonia Hernandez is an affiliate graphic and web designer, providing public and visual output to diverse types of research. She finished a Masters degree in Media Studies at Concordia University, 2011. Mixing media practice and theoretical research, her interests involve the domestic side of digital networks, interfaces and alternative education. 

Aimee Louw is a writer, independent journalist and activist focusing on access and media production that promotes self-definition. Her undergraduate thesis in Political Science at Concordia University explored media and rhetorical approaches applied to gain fence-sitter support for the Idle No More Movement. She has presented her research on social movements at conferences at McGill and York Universities. As part of a multimedia project exploring first-hand accounts of in/accessibility and ableism in Canadian cities she is directing, she has just published a zine called Underwater City I: Searching for the Most Accessible City in Canada. ( Aimee’s media production interests lie in radio, narrative journalism, and documentary film-making incorporating elements of imagination and images of the ideal. A member of Accessibilize Montreal, Aimee campaigns for accessible transit and cultural spaces, and facilitates workshops relating to ableism, sexuality and moving beyond notions of normality.

Ashley McAskill has a BA in Theatre and Film Studies and English, and a MA in Communications and New Media, from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She has experience working in/with the disability community and over the past 10 years has been a theatre practitioner. For her doctoral work, Ashley has brought both these experiences together to explore the current state of “disability theatre” (a name that she also questions) in Canada. Ashley’s main question is: How is the creative work of artists who identify as having disabilities and/or mental illness being recognized, developed and encouraged in Canada? During her time at Concordia, she has been working in both the Communication Studies and Theatre Department as a research and teaching assistant. Other research interests include: ethical research practices, community arts projects, beauty practices, feminist media, and film studies.

Laurence Parent is a PhD student in Humanities at Concordia University. She holds a MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University and a BA in Political Science from Université du Québec à Montréal. She lives in Montréal and is passionate about disability activism, disability history and mobility.  She is currently working with Professor Kim Sawchuk and the m.i.a. collective. The m.i.a. collective is a collective of researchers, affiliated with the Mobile Media Lab, who are engaged in forms interdisciplinary projects that contain practice-led and theoretical inquiries into the confluences of critical disability studies and mobility studies. Laurence's doctoral research examines disabled people's sense of belonging in Montréal and in New York City, as well as in the communities they identify or would like to identify with, considering that this is not fixed but rather constantly changing. She is particularly interested in the use of mobile media technologies enabling the creation of new methods for the critical study of ableism.

Eric Powell is a PhD student in the Communications Department at Concordia. His current research examines the interrelationship among space, place, and aural environments, with a focus on creating interactive sound-based maps and new interfaces to enable accessibility for all audiences. He has presented his research in Canada, the USA, Mexico and Europe with a recent article in the Canadian Electroacoustic Community’s online journal eContact! He is co-vice chair of the Canadian Association for Sound Ecology and a founding member of eletricityismagic, a sound and media art collective. Currently, he is developing prototype devices to assist in the education of people with developmental disabilities. He has presented his research in Canada, the USA, Mexico and Europe.


More to come...  


New Digital Repertoires for Social Justice, Politics, and Culture?:  Exploring Disability Activism & Mobile & Social Media
Participatory & Interactive Workshopwith Professor Gerard Goggin
March 16, 2016, 11am - 1pm, Rm EV 11.655
1515 Sainte Catherine West

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