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“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.

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    Scott PorterApr 20, 2018 at 2:42 pm

    This is interesting and proves perspective is important. I am very glad that current students feel well served.

    I became a paraplegic (from the chest down – for the persons trained in the medical fields – a lesion at T4) a number of years after graduating from Grinnell. Just as de Tocqueville could explore life in America as an outsider, I approach my life after my injury as an outsider and observe what changed with my injury.

    One observation changed my word choice with a decision not to use the words “disability” or “disabled” since they just describe a conclusion. I refer to deficits, as in “I have physical deficits”. If I am disabled, by definition I am not able. I can supplement or create adaptations to overcome my deficits and still be able.

    Post injury I have travelled extensively (3 european trips representing the US in marathons, and doing marathons in all 50 states and DC in one year, for example). So I have not let my physical deficits prevent me from being active.

    After returning to campus several times post injury, I have resolved not to attend any more on-campus Alumni events as they systematically prevent my participation despite my experience and ingenuity to adapt and overcome my physical deficits.

    While not discussed in the article or the panel discussion about identity, let me mention another observation about word choice which can reflect on identity. My hope is to promote deep thought about communication. Many will think the best practice is to use the “person-first descriptions”. “Person first” is where we are to say and write “a person who is a paraplegic” or maybe “a person who has paraplegia” but definitely not the simple phrase “a paraplegic” as the subject or the object for the relevant verb. The thought is people aren’t just their diagnoses. There are other parts of their life experiences. There is a rationale (some diagnoses) where “person first” makes sense but it is in a very limited way which I won’t be explaining here, and the wholesale use of it reveals some bias (hopefully unconscious) when applied to all deficits.

    The bias reveals itself as a stigmatizing construction. The “person first” construction is only used to describe what the speaker believes is a bad situation. We don’t say “a person who is a professional athlete”, “. . . Medical Doctor” , ” . . . professor” , “. . . dean”, etc.

    In most sentences the diagnosis doesn’t matter, such as: Scott, a person who is a paraplegic, can give a cogent explanation of and actual real world uses of the Object Oriented Programming concept of Polymorphism. The diagnosis in any construction is a non-sequitur.

    When the diagnosis does matter is when the condition is relevant to another part of the statement. Such as: A paraplegic, can’t stay at Grinnell House since there is no way to get a wheelchair into the elevator. The sentence is not any better when it is changed to: A person with paraplegia, . . . .

    I now know many people with ambulatory deficits. Without the rigor of statistical analysis and research worthy of a peer reviewed journal to support my assertion, I will state my understanding that almost to a person none of them worry about the “person first” formulation and are much more concerned with whether the locations they must visit have made it possible for them to get their wheelchair in the elevator. Again with the total lack of academic rigor, the people I KNOW WELL who insist on “person first” language are very invested in victimhood as opposed to living.

    If you are concerned that you now can’t communicate because you don’t know whether you should use “person first” language, let me close with advice that I think can be universal. Approach all communication with respect for all. Any technical violations of word choice will be covered over by that respectful approach.