Showcase reveals breadth, depth of disability scholars' work

By Leslie King | Nov. 24, 2014

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Ben Reiss, professor of English and co-director of the Emory Disability Studies Initiative, praised the diversity of projects presented during Emory’s second annual Disability Scholars Showcase. Emory Photo / Video.

From literary and cultural portrayals to medical ethics and theology, a wide range of academic disciplines was on display earlier this month for the second annual Disability Scholars Showcase.

Five scholars presented brief overviews of their works-in-progress as they relate to the study of disability in their fields. Two scholars with backgrounds in literature gave representational analyses of how ideas about disability become encoded in different cultural systems. 

On the other side of the spectrum, applied disability studies were highlighted by a neonatologist and a neuroethics scholar who discussed the ethics involved in diagnosing conditions like autism or genetic anomalies and how they are presented to patients and their families.

A religion scholar also presented her work exploring how one Atlanta church is making new meanings, new narratives and new symbologies by including people with mental illness.

Introducing the Disability Scholars Showcase, Ben Reiss, professor of English and co-director of the Emory Disability Studies Initiative, noted the diversity of projects being presented.

"One of the best things that comes out of it is simply people saying, 'Oh my God, I had no idea that somebody over in this part of the university is doing something that's so important in connection to what I'm doing'," he said.

These scholars described their work during the Nov. 3 showcase:

April Dworetz, a neonatologist and assistant professor in the School of Medicine, explores the social model of disability in health care conversations. Dworetz presented two scripts that described how different health care professionals told parents that their newborn, "Sophia," was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

The two scripts described the typical way and her proposed way for health care professionals to speak with the parents of newborns.

Most of the first doctor's information to the parents "revolves around the medical problems associated with Down syndrome," Dworetz said, as the doctor tells the parents how the baby's physical disorders will hinder her abilities and add to her developmental delay.

The second doctor tells the parents that "the thought is that Sophia is not slow or retarded but she learns another way … and develops on her own timeline."

Informing the parents of what Sophia will do instead of what she will not do lets the parents imagine Sophia in familiar ways. "The [second] script shifts focus from an individual infant with a medical diagnosis to a baby in a relationship with parents," Dworetz said.

Rizvana Bradley, assistant professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, seeks to connect her work to thinking about disability with respect to race and processes of racialization.

Bradley cited Toni Morrison's theorizing about resurrected flesh in her novel "Beloved." "I'm interested in how this flesh becomes the condition of possibility for reimagining that ways in which we collectively live and inhabit life in the flesh specifically with respect to contemporary art and performances practices and the materiality of these art forms," she said.

Bradley is thinking through the work of European, American and Caribbean philosophers, poets and writers to draw out the historical specificity of black community through the motif of the flesh.  

"This flesh is not truly activated without an analytic of burnt or scared flesh that emerges in an Afro-diasporic context. So I'm really interested in thinking about burnt, scarred or drowned flesh specifically in relation to debility," she said.



Jennifer Sarrett, visiting assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Human Health, is studying the ethical implications of the development of eye-tracking devices for early screening and diagnosis of autism. Her research includes "the implications of false negatives and positives as they could affect the parent-child relationship, the re-allocation of family resources," she said.
 
She is also examining the ethics of using chromosomal microarrays for adults and intellectual and developmental disabilities. "Chromosomal microarrays are a really detailed look at your genetics and can identify a lot of genetic anomalies," Sarrett said.
 
Questions she's asking include: What happens if an incidental finding shows a genetic link that's commonly associated with intellectual and developmental disability and that information is provided to an adult who does not have a diagnosis? How is that going to affect the adult's identity formation, their thoughts of their past and their history, their future and their children?

George Gordon-Smith, Ph.D. candidate in English, is interested in the relationship between critical disability studies and critical race theory. "My project argues that an assumption of blackness as a disability reinforced the pro-slavery central tenet, creating a notion of race as disability, which remained in place well after emancipation," he said.

Gordon-Smith starts with the trans-Atlantic slave ship, noting that these ships systematically produced disabilities. He shows how Phillis Wheatley through her poetry argues against claims of black mental incapacity presented in Thomas Jefferson's 1785's "Notes on the State of Virginia." Gordon-Smith's project also examines "the mixed race subject."

"I explore these overtones of disability and the tragic mulatto figure," he said, adding that he is looking at "what can disability tell us about the constructions of race and literary representations of black face and minstrel performance."

Rebecca Spurrier, a Ph.D. candidate in the graduate division of theological studies, invoked the late Emory scholar Nancy Eiesland's book, "The Disabled God," as an important introduction to a study of the relationship between disability and theology.

"Eiesland talks about some of the harms Christian communities have perpetuated against people with disabilities by treating them as objects of theological inquiry rather than as theological subjects and actors," Spurrier said.

"One of the concepts that is really important to me is her idea of segregationist charity. She talks about how Christian communities have used people with disabilities as objects of their own goodness without inviting them to transform the fundamental religious symbols and body practices of the church."

Spurrier's research looks at a particular church in Atlanta in which about 60 to 65 percent of the people have diagnoses of mental illness. "How is this community in attempting to refuse segregationist charity, attempting to think about religious life differently, how is it being transformed by people with disabilities?" she asked.

"What I am most interested in is how people with disabilities in the church are transforming the ways I think about what it means to be a Christian church, to have a religious community that thinks about making space for difference and performing these sort of artistries of interpersonal connection that bridge some of the differences within the community," she said.