“Disability as Identity” panel to start conversations


Ahon Goopta

This semester, the Disability Resources Office and the Assistive Technology Lab have hosted a series of events about disability both at Grinnell College and the wider world. The culminating panel discussion, “Disability as Identity,” will be held on Friday, April 20.

The previous events in the series dealt with the technical aspects of disability, with discussions on living with learning disabilities in academia and funding and services for individuals with disabilities to get medical care. The penultimate event highlighted the importance of the American with Disabilities Act, how it applies to students and how they can advocate for themselves.

“We’re trying to make disability and disability culture an integrated part of the Grinnell experience and trying to bring visibility to our office and to our students,” said Maddie O’Meara ’17, the organizer of the Disability Event Series and moderator of Friday’s discussion.

The capstone discussion will delve into the personal and talk about things that are more difficult to talk about. The panel will comprise of Professor Astrid Henry, gender, women’s and sexuality studies; Professor Carolyn Lewis, history and gender, women’s and sexuality studies; Maure Smith-Benanti, associate dean of students and director of Intercultural Affairs; Jennifer Brooks ’15, currently pursuing sociology and disability studies in graduate school; and current students Rebecca Hsiung ’19 and Christina Collins ’21. 

“[O’Meara] worked pretty hard to get people from different aspects of life at Grinnell,” Hsiung said. “We’re trying to showcase the diversity that is entailed in disability. None of us is going to be saying the same things. We all play different roles at the College, so it has impacted our work here in very different ways.”

“Not everyone on the panel necessarily identifies as an individual with a disability,” O’Meara clarified. “Part of the point of the panel is that disability identity is complicated and amorphous and constantly shifting. Two people can have the exact same diagnosis and one can [identify as] disabled and one cannot.”

Although Grinnell has a very strong focus on social responsibility and inclusion, people tend to be less familiar with disability than with other categories of identity at the College. 

“I hope that as a panel we are able to give a window into what it is to live with a disability,” Collins said. “Because I think that sometimes for those that don’t consider themselves disabled and don’t have something big that’s impacting their lives, it can be difficult to remember that there are things that you can see and there are things that you can’t see that impact the way people live. And having a bit more understanding about that, I feel, would be a benefit to the community. … Grinnell is the first place that I’ve felt comfortable talking about it in the open.”

According to Hsiung, Grinnell’s resources for students with disabilities “are so much more comprehensive than basically any other college in the United States.” She considers the College to be a pioneer in organizing programs and outreach for students with disabilities.

“My favorite class right now is with Ralph Savarese in the English department,” she said. “I’m taking a seminar with him that is very grounded in disability studies and he’s a very well known scholar and activist in disability studies. I work with a lot of great students on accessibility initiatives at the College through Intercultural Affairs and PCPOP, which is one of the first-year mentorship programs that includes disabilities.”

She also works with Autumn Wilke, Assistant Dean for Disability Resources, Professor Eliza Willis, political science, Professor Casey Oberlin, sociology, and some library staff to go through buildings, programs and resources on campus along with students and staff with disabilities to beta test those places for potential disability problems.

As for Collins, she has been grateful for the support that she has received from the office.

“I needed help when I came to Grinnell because I was struggling and I couldn’t cope with my mental illnesses on my own. I found my way to the Disabilities Office and I was shocked how much more support Grinnell had. Grinnell has support I didn’t even know I wanted,” she said.

Collins, Hsiung and O’Meara all intend to continue to work in Disability Studies into the future. O’Meara plans to study disability law after attending law school, Hsiung hopes to work with disability education in an inclusive environment and Collins plans to investigate how disabilities can influence the way a person interacts with the health care system.

“This isn’t going to be one of those panels where everyone takes themselves very, very seriously,” O’Meara clarified. “It’s going to be much more informal and give people the chance to have the in-depth conversations in smaller groups after the discussion instead of the general one answer to one question. … Grinnell has never had anything like this before.”

“Disability as Identity” will be held on Friday, April 20 at 7 p.m. in JRC 101.