Disability Studies Initiative to nurture scholarship, awareness

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 24, 2013

For years, disability studies have played an important role at Emory University, finding a natural home within a wide array of disciplines, from medical and cultural scholarship to anthropological, literary, artistic, historical and religious works.  

But without a formal program or department, the full scope and strength of that work hasn't always been readily apparent.  

However, disabilities scholarship is finding new visibility at Emory this fall with the launch of a Disability Studies Initiative (DSI), which supports the promotion and development of interdisciplinary teaching, research and activities in the field.  

Created with support from Emory College, the Laney Graduate School, the Center for Ethics, and the Provost's Office, the initiative seeks not only to identify and enhance existing disability studies at Emory, but also to further the University's commitment to access and diversity through curriculum development, scholarly research and artistic programming around disability issues.

The initiative was proposed by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of English and women's, gender and sexuality studies, who counts disabilities studies as a part of her own research, and Benjamin Reiss, an English professor whose research includes connections among literature, medicine, disability and American culture.  

"This is a new initiative in the sense that it's recognized, supported and has a website, but it really is a logical of continuation of the strong disabilities studies presence at Emory over the last 10 or more years," says Garland-Thomson, co-chair.  

"These topics have been very much alive in teaching, research and scholarship at Emory for a long time," she explains. "This initiative recognizes, supports and extends that work and those strengths."

A steering committee representing a wide range of disciplines and departments will also provide ongoing advice to the University about increasing Emory's "institutional, intellectual and ethical commitment to accessibility," says Garland-Thomson.

Members of the steering committee represent disciplines such as law, literature, history, sociology, anthropology, political science, public health, neuroscience, theology, bioethics, art history, the ILA, and women's, gender and sexuality studies.  

Their charge: Develop and promote scholarly and artistic programming that stimulates conversation across a range of disciplines, both within the Emory community and the broader public.  

Not only will participants present works-in-progress, but the committee will also host visiting scholars, writers and performers, plan film screenings, reading groups and conferences, and provide networking and mentoring opportunities across disciplines.  

Disability studies: A growing discipline

As an academic discipline, disability studies was an outgrowth of the American civil rights movement — among a number of so-called "identity studies" that emerged in the 1960s from a changing social environment, Garland-Thomson says.  

"I think one of the surprises around disability studies at Emory is how much already exists, dispersed across the graduate school, the College, law school, and health sciences" she says.  

"It's become clearer to me as I go to professional venues and hear people saying, ‘Oh, Emory is the best place to go in the country to study disability.' That's because of the commitment to disability studies at the University and research that's coming out of Emory."  

Today, Garland-Thomson can point to at least 20 graduate students working on projects that involve some aspect of disability studies — students like Harold Braswell, a PhD candidate at Emory's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA), whose dissertation explores how disability is redefined in the U.S. hospice tradition, and Rachel Dudley, a doctoral candidate in women's, gender and sexuality studies, who is studying the use of enslaved black women as experimental subjects in the development of modern gynecology.  

"And there may be many more that we just don't know about," she adds. "The Disability Studies Initiative acts to flush out undergraduate, graduate and faculty in this area."  

Part of the role of the initiative is to formally organize a community of scholars that is already very much present across campus — a network of affiliated faculty who already integrate disability studies into what they teach and research, Garland-Thomson adds.  

"I think many of the faculty here — like me — consider disability studies to be one of their specializations and agree that the study of disability is actually more effective when spread across the methods, assumptions, practices of a variety of different disciplines," she says. "It's a model of interdisciplinary knowledge building for Emory."  

Speakers Series: Disability, government, employment  

This month, the Disability Studies Initiative Speaker's Series opens Monday, Oct. 28 and continues through Wednesday, Oct. 30 with a series of public events featuring Maria Town, an Emory alumna who works in the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, and Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and a member of the President's National Council on Disability.  

The public is also invited to participate in the continuing film series, DISABILITY IN FOCUS, held once a month at the Emory Center for Ethics. Each film is followed with a discussion led by scholar respondents.  

Future events will feature current disability studies scholarship and research, as well as disability culture, such as comedians with disabilities, disability in sports,  contemporary dance performance featuring dancers with disabilities, and developments in integrating disability and disabled people into education.  

 For more information, or to check a calendar of upcoming events, visit www.disabilitystudies.emory.edu.