Thursday, September 24, 2009

Disability as Diversity: A Thematic Approach

Introductory Bio

Margaret Price is an assistant professor of writing at Spelman College in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in journals including CCC, Across the Disciplines, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2011, the University of Michigan Press will publish her book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life.

Blog Entry

In 2006, I joined with the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition (CDICC) to co-write “A Policy on Disability in CCCC.” I remember that many of our emailed conversations focused on the question of disability as “a diversity issue,” and the final version of the policy states: “CCCC affirms that people with disabilities bring a valuable source of diversity to college composition classrooms, university communities, and to our professional organization” ( The concept of “disability as diversity” has received considerable attention from writing teachers and scholars. A 2001 article in CCC, “Becoming Visible: Lessons in Disability” (by Brenda Brueggemann, Linda Feldmeier White, Patricia Dunn, Barbara Heifferon, and Johnson Cheu) noted that, in 1997, a motion at the CCCC Business Meeting asked that disability be included within the various “diversity” issues considered by the organization; and the sourcebook Disability and the Teaching of Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2008) includes an article by Ray Pence, “Enforcing Diversity and Living with Disability,” that remarks, “That American studies would include class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality seemed natural to me. [But] when I thought of disability as a subject of scholarly interest I confined it to applied fields such as occupational therapy and special education.” Other works, including Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture (Southern Illinois UP, 2001) and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (MLA, 2002), offer further exploration of disability as “a diversity issue” in the classroom, in pop culture, in historical and institutional documents.

I firmly believe that disability is—in the common phrase—“a diversity issue.” I’ve invoked diversity myself in various articles and essays about disability-studies (DS) in rhetoric, research, and pedagogy. And yet, as I continue to work to incorporate critical awareness of disability into my writing classes, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with references to disability qua disability. Pence’s point about the commonsense association of disability with medicalized fields such as occupational therapy or special education remains true, despite decades of work by DS scholars to demonstrate the ways that disability is a cultural and rhetorical issue—in short, is a “diversity issue.” This post is in fact a story—a story about trying to teach disability as diversity, about trying to teach disability as an issue of rhetoric and body rather than medicine and diagnosis.

Since 2004, I have taught at Spelman College, a historically Black college (HBCU) for women in Atlanta. I am white, queer, disabled, and from the northern U.S. Although I thought a lot about my race and sexuality when I first arrived at Spelman—some of my thoughts are recorded in the Creative Nonfiction article “Then You’ll Be Straight” (2006)—for the last few years, I’ve been thinking more about disability, and the ways that it intersects with the local contexts of my Spelman classrooms.

Incorporating disability studies (DS) into classes at Spelman has been an illuminating journey. My aim in incorporating DS is to engage the concept of disability as diversity—that is, getting beyond dominant narratives of pity, tragedy, and/or redemption and addressing disability and “normality” as critical constructs. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and James C. Wilson have suggested that English studies and writing classrooms may be sites especially well-suited to such exploration, as it involves “the reading, articulating, and reinterpretation of meaning in language and culture” (“Constructing a Third Space,” in the MLA anthology Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, 2002). It is often assumed that exploration of disability in the humanities classroom encroaches on medical discourses better-suited to biology or pharmacology; however, DS asserts that the questioning of medical discourse and its operation in the culture of power is a project that must be taken up in humanistic thought.

Probably because of our specific location at an HBCU, I have found repeatedly that students at Spelman are eager to compare the experiences of disability and racial oppression. Here are a couple of statements from first-year composition students (reprinted with permission) who took part in a collaborative project with an upper-level literature course, taught by Dr. Pushpa Parekh. In these two paired courses, we read and viewed disability texts/films and discussed them in an online asynchronous environment. Students from my first-year writing section wrote:

"I think that the disability movement parallels the Civil Rights movement in many ways. The idea is freedom and justice for all. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was a movement protesting unequal treatment and limited access (Jim Crow laws), the disability movement is one demanding recognition of human equality and value."

"I don’t think [disabled people are] saying to portray them as normal people with no problems but that they ARE capable of doing some things on their own. It’s kind of like when I hear that all black women are teenage mothers or that we’re not expected to go to college or to be that doctor or lawyer."

I have struggled to figure out how to respond to such comments. Comparing two different social movements, as the first student does, is one thing; comparing two different sets of human experience, as the second student does, is another; and in both cases, I find myself wondering—to what degree are such comparisons helpful and generative, and to what degree do they participate in a collapsing of difference? How can we get beyond classroom conversations on diversity that adhere to simplistic bumper-sticker nostrums (“Celebrate Diversity!”) and into the more complicated, localized, and sometimes painful conversations that lead to true coalition?

As I continue to revise my courses at Spelman, I find myself moving away from readily labeled identity categories (“disability,” “race,” “gender”) and toward themes that invoke these categories but—I hope—invite a more complex consideration of the categories’ intersectionality. For instance, last semester I taught an Investigation (qualitative research methods) class focused on the theme of “Investigating Wellness.” I chose this theme knowing that wellness has a particular meaning in Spelman’s local context: our health services center, which incorporates both a medical clinic and Counseling Services, is called the Wellness Center. I elaborated my hopes on the syllabus with this statement: “We will define ‘wellness’ broadly, so that it can refer to emotional, mental, community, spiritual, or physical wellness. Our investigations will include consideration of medical discourse, disability, Black women’s wellness, and challenges to conventional definitions of ‘wellness.’ Your own understanding of what ‘wellness’ means, and the ways your stance changes and deepens throughout the course, will be of central importance.” In the course, we read works ranging from Atul Gawande’s Better, a popular/statistical analysis of medical discourse (Metropolitan Press, 2007) to G. Winton James and Lisa C. Moore’s Spirited, a collection of writings that explore “the soul and Black gay/lesbian identity” (Redbone Press, 2006). Using the theme of “wellness,” I was trying to get away from the commonsense associations of disability: the wheelchair, “special” education, deficit.

Students rose to the theme with great energy and extraordinary resourcefulness, and pushed my own understanding of wellness—not to mention of disability, race, and a number of other identity markers—into new territory. Their research projects engaged questions on topics including food allergies, Black women’s emotional responses to Michelle Obama, depression and suicide, and HIV/AIDS. In most cases, the studies focused on discursive questions such as attitudes toward particular issues, or ways of defining them. One student chose to conduct a case study of a person she was very close to who has degenerative arthritis; the student’s major finding was that this person’s spiritual life was the key factor in her ability to live day-to-day with pain and impairment.

However, “Investigating Wellness” was not simply a success story. Familiar and problematic discourses continued to circulate in our discussions: for instance, the assumption that individuals should “overcome” obstacles, in reference to both race and disability, was heavily valued throughout the semester. Yet it was also one of the most fulfilling classes I have taught at Spelman. I had omitted my usual requirement for a “final presentation” from the syllabus, thinking that I wanted to spare students—and myself—from the usual round of dull PowerPoints and forced question-and-answer sessions. But to my surprise, students asked for an opportunity to share their findings, and together created a list of requirements for the kind of final presentations they wanted to see. (Among the collaboratively-determined requirements were “Make it interactive and fun,” “Don’t rely too heavily on a Power Point,” “What assumptions did you bring to the project that were challenged?” and “What other research questions did you find along the way?”) I discarded the readings and exercises I’d planned for our final two course meetings, and instead we ate pizza and talked about our research in terms of race, disability, gender, age, class, and many other factors.

That, to me, is a successful “diversity” experience. I had terrific students—I don’t want to underplay that aspect of it—but I think part of its success may have occurred because I consciously turned away from conventional markers of diversity (“race,” “gender,” “disability,” etc.) and asked students to foreground their own interests, their own curiosity about human experience. I have noticed that teachers in various sites seem to be moving away from what has called the “laundry list” of identity categories and toward notions such as “vulnerability” or “minority studies” (see the Vulnerability Project at Emory’s Race and Difference Initiative,, and the Future of Minority Studies Project, I believe that such themes invoke our diversity, our shared and different oppressions and privileges, our humanity.

1 comment:

Cristina said...


As someone who is also from a minority-serving institution, I wish to commend you for writing a post that is indicative of the rich complex analyses of "diversity" that students from such institutions can offer a professor and their class colleagues. I see it as particularly enlightening for students when we have professors at minority-serving institutions who can address multiple diversities for their students through particular themes that cross many "diverse" areas.

I find that my students that are at a Hispanic-Serving Institution have this empathy, which opens so many doors to examining diversity issues other than the ones they would normally associate themselves with. Thank you for your eloquent and informative post. Spelman is lucky to have you, and you are lucky to have these wonderfully engaged students. They are good role models for educating our future generations about diversity.

Cristina Kirklighter

CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA