What I Wish I Knew about Anthropology and Disability: Notes toward a more enabling anthropology

What I Wish I Knew about Anthropology and Disability: Notes toward a more enabling anthropology

This post was written by Michele Friedner, with Devva Kasnitz, and Zoë Wool.

This year, In the wake of yet another remarkably inaccessible and access-ignorant AAA meeting–and as many of us dive back into teaching with questions of inequity and social difference whirling within and beyond the classroom–it seems there’s no time like the present to highlight the ableism that structures anthropology.

Anthropologists have always been interested in categories of difference in field sites and in the classroom. However, disability has generally not received much attention either as a category or experience. This is unfortunate because attending to disability offers important ways of thinking about senescence, vulnerability, interdependence, social formations, the mindful body, and the multivalent roles of medicine and medical technologies, among many other things tied to real and ideal embodiment.

In addition, attending to disability is important because increasingly, many of the students whom we teach identify as experiencing disability. They request accommodations and they call out disability discrimination. How might we center these students’ experiences in the classroom now and in a future as teachers, and how might this transform our pedagogy? Similarly, how might attending to disability in our knowledge dissemination change how and where we present our work or consume our colleagues’ work? Might we move away from reading papers at fast paces, for example? To what new modes of engagement might thinking through disability and accessibility lead?

Photogrpah of a whiteboard with red text
This whiteboard shows student responses to the question “what do you need to flourish in a space?” The question emerged during a conversation about access led by feminist and disability studies scholar Alison Kafer while visiting Zoë Wool’s Disability Inside-Out course at Rice University in Spring 2017.

These are questions that the Disability Research Interest Group (DRIG) membership often thinks about. The Society for Medical Anthropology hosts the over 30-year-old DRIG, a lively and increasingly youthful group of scholars interested in the study of disability as category and experience in diverse contexts. In addition to engaging in scholarship DRIG (like so many others before it) has been forced to labor to make the American Anthropological Association annual meetings more accessible and equitable. The DRIG has lobbied the AAA board and created accessibility guidelines to be disseminated among conference participants. We’ve been increasingly frustrated by the AAA Administration’s response, made more striking by a decade of having up to four disability scholars on the AAA Executive Board, and robust anthropological representation in the world-wide development of disability studies.

While the AAA claims on its website, as demanded by the DRIG, that it is committed to going “beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act,” a phrase authored by the DRIG, its actions are reactive and can be characterized in Lisa Stevenson’s words as “anonymous care.” For example, when it receives requests for signed language interpreters, the AAA simply reaches out to a national agency and gets a warm body without considering whether or not the interpreter is actually an academic interpreter or what the deaf attendee might need (this can be contrasted with the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) practices as MLA recognizes the importance of skill and consistently flies in the same interpreters for its annual conferences). At the DRIG annual meetings at the AAA conferences, conversations often must move from discussions of scholarship to concerns around the lack of accessibility at the annual conference as well as concerns about the lack of representation of disabled anthropologists in academia.

We, Michele, Zoe, and Devva, wish that this was not the case and that we had a more enabling anthropology. As such, we have taken a page from Carol McGranahan’s recent post and crowdsourced this (non-exhaustive) list of wishes, desires, and critiques from disabled anthropologists.

What I wish I knew about Anthropology and Disability…

…and ‘real’ anthropology.

I wish that I had known that anthropologists still seem to hold onto the belief that disabled anthropologists can’t do field work, well, at least not real field work.

I wish I had known that I would be pressured to frame my research on disabled people as inspirational.

I wish I had known that research by a disabled person on disabled people will automatically be classified as ‘autoethnographic.’

I wish I had known that disabled people don’t fit the classic model of anthropologists, and I would have to spend energy making space in the discipline for myself.

I wish I had known that I would be ideologically (in addition to physically) unable to do fieldwork in a setting where access for physical disabilities is limited.

I wish I had known that while my graduate advisor and my colleagues think disability as category and experience is “interesting,” they are not so invested in the real world political economic and social stakes of living with disability or in working towards accessibility in the classroom and in the discipline as a whole.

…at the AAAs.

I wish I knew that AAA would ignore their internal disability accommodation experts and hire outside people to do the work who know nothing about anthropology or the AAA as an association or the access issues that disabled anthropologists face.

I wish that I had known that it would be a constant fight to get accommodations and access from the AAA and that to have an interpreter, I would have to inform the AAA months in advance about the panels I wanted to attend, something that typically hearing attendees do not have to do.

I wish that I had known that the discipline is incredibly normative in terms of how knowledge is disseminated and that anthropologists as a practice read papers, often at fast speeds, and with no attention paid to whether or not they are doing so in a way that is conducive to non-normative forms of reception.

….and academic labor.

I wish I were facing tenure requirements without depression, or that somehow my depression could be taken into account.

I wish that I did not have to worry about whether or not my department will think about the cost of providing accommodations and whether I am an “expensive” colleague when considering my tenure case.

I wish that I had known that anthropologists still hold onto legal categories in considering disability and that they generally treat disability in the classroom as an “ADA issue” to be complied with.

I wish I had known that anthropologists still assume that other anthropologists will be normatively speaking and hearing; that because my speech is different, I am somehow assumed to be an unintelligible subject (and not a colleague).

I wish that I had understood the consequences of the fact that depression/mental illness is generally ignored. We may talk about our students’ possible/actual mental health struggles, but except within very particular spaces (close friendships, some disability-oriented spaces), we pretend that as professionals, we are all pretty much the same in terms of mental health (i.e., that we struggle, say, with stress or busy-ness or balance, but that we do so as non-psychiatrically-disabled persons).

I wish I were facing hiring/advancement / tenure requirements without disability discrimination, or that somehow such discrimination could be taken into account.

I wish I had known that academic writing is supposed to be free of spelling and grammar errors from the very beginning, even before publication, and that proof reading is not considered an accommodation. As a dyslexic anthropologist, this means that I depend on my partner, colleagues, and friends to perform unpaid labor.

I wish I had known that as a graduate student, I would be required to undergo expensive testing to have my learning disability validated in order to receive accommodations—and that this testing would not be covered by university health insurance.

I wish I’d know that as a post-doc, disclosing my disability to my students would feel like powerful disability praxis, while as a tenure-track professor, it would feel like a threat to my future.

Zoë Wool is assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Rice university. Zoë works at the intersection of (medical) anthropology, critical disability studies, STS, and queer theory. Most of her ethnographic work explores the intimacies, socialities, and materialities of life making among injured US soldiers and veterans. She’s also been thinking about new feminist, queer, and cripistemological histories of neurology…among other things.

10 Replies to “What I Wish I Knew about Anthropology and Disability: Notes toward a more enabling anthropology”

  1. Fantastic piece. Thanks so much for writing this. I have just graduated from an undergrad anthropology program and the thought of going to grad school as a disabled student terrifies me. Our field so desperately needs to change its paradigm regarding disability. We need more anthropologists like you!

  2. We’re sorry to hear that one of our Annual Meeting attendees was disappointed in the accommodations provided. The AAA goes to great lengths to ensure we apply an attitude of acceptance, collegiality, and respect toward disabled persons. Unfortunately, this observer has mis-characterized the qualifications of the experts with whom we consulted, and our willingness to accommodate all reasonable requests. In this case, AAA asked in advance for, and was provided, an ASL interpreter during the session she requested. However, she then waited until the night before the session to amend her request to have an interpreter for the entire meeting. We again managed to accommodate this last minute request with the best available professionals.

    AAA consults with experts from the National Council on Independent Living to continuously improve its capacity to provide reasonable accommodations. We are always open to suggestions on how we can enhance our services. AAA is committed to ensuring that our Annual Meeting is inclusive and accessible for all attendees and will continue to not only meet, but exceed all of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    1. Jeff,
      Whoa!! I warned the AAA Executive Director, Ed Liebow that people were unhappy. We are in a collegial conversation. I just had not yet had time to send him our post. Jeff, NOTHING about your hyper defensive post furthers that conversation. It just makes it obvious why we are upset.
      1) Your post outs an anonymous poster. There are so few Deaf people in AAA who attend; we now know the author just as well as we know the comment about speech impairment is mine because I am unique. Our stories are not yours to tell.
      2) Had the Deaf poster’s experience been unique, you stress “one,” we would not be here now. AAA’s intention is not at issue, I wrote the line about AAA wants to “exceed all of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” I don’t need it quoted back to me. I need it implemented.
      3) The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL-a group I belong to and respect) recommended “expert” you hired was a BIG MISTAKE and I said so AT THE TIME after doing some research about him — and I was not heard. He doesn’t know anthropology, our meeting structure, or any of the complex cross-impairment communication and other issues that are the big problems.
      4) It was also insulting to the disabled AAA long-term members, like me, who have been begging for the opportunity to do his kind of work with AAA for DECADES and would do it for free or expenses. This is up there with AAA using Public Health meetings access process as a model. Wrong models, and we said so.
      5) AAA misunderstandings about the hours of coverage and when coverage is indeed are legend. You are a new name attached to an old problem and your post disqualifies you from doing this work in the future. Our stories are not yours to tell. We keep hoping AAA will have a process that allows disabled members the same SPONTANEITY as everyone else has. We have ways of doing that without breaking the bank, but we now need a measure of administrative CONTROL over the Societies’ accommodation process to believe that change is possible. We feel “managed” and may take that to the general membership.
      6) Accommodation to disability is NOT easy, straight forward, formulaic, nor an individual issue and in our increasingly diverse world it is a skill set about I INTERDEPENDENCE. It is no longer about individual independence. Many disabled people have a whole repertoire of possible accommodations that can work for them. In order to best accommodate at a group event, we choose from the repertoire according to the fiscal, temporal, AND human context. AAA does not supply enough context nor does it encourage exchanges of who needs what when. Some basic accommodations are directly incompatible. Solving that problem takes communication and group trust.
      Unfortunately, AAA has lost the TRUST of its disabled members and the growing number of disability scholars and allies we have in the membership, those that are still members. Our stories are not yours to tell. “Nothing about us without us.”
      Devva Kasnitz, PhD
      Executive Director
      Society for Disability Studies

    2. Wow, this is a defensive and egregious reply. Interesting too that you choose to focus on an individual situation and potentially “out” that person. Is this possibly retaliatory? What do you hope to gain here? The authors of the original post clearly stated that they were crowd-sourcing anonymous responses. How do you even know who said what? Indeed, with replies like yours, it seems all the more clear why people might wish to stay anonymous. Just wow.

    3. Jo,
      I’m afraid the “one” came from inappropriate internal AAA staff sharing. Jeff Martin, is the Director of Communications and Public Affairs at AAA. I looked him up on the web to see what his job was. I was pretty shocked to find out it was communications and public affairs. He used the royal “we” thus stating that he feels he represents all AAA staff, and by extension the membership. He could only have gotten the information about the specific interpreting problem from a staff member in the meeting department. Probably the one who apologized about the error they made in this case, who had NO reason to tell Public Affairs about this problem at all.

  3. Jeff: The issue pointed out about qualified signed language interpreters is a general one, not in reference to a particular case. That’s kind of the point. We’re offering you evidence of a systemic problem, and your response is to deflect onto one instance and blame the person who was asking for accommodations? Yikes.

    That you would publicly post the details of one person’s accommodation request flirts with the unethical. By referring to this person as “she,” your comment has the unfortunate (and I’m sure unintended) effect of dismissing a complaint about accommodation by evoking the tired trope of the disorganized and emotional woman.

    Also, “The AAA goes to great lengths to ensure we apply an attitude of acceptance, collegiality, and respect toward disabled persons.” This sentence recapitulates so many of the ableist attitudes this post is trying to work against. It suggests disabled scholars are a burden to the AAAs, that the AAA is doing some great and burdensome task by extending basic features of intellectual and professional decency to disabled scholars, and also that disabled scholars are some kind of rare species that require special handling. FYI, 37% of academics have a mental health disorder, 20% of Americans are disabled, 1 in 6 Americans takes a psychiatric medications, and nearly 70% of Americans take a prescription drug of some kind. The issues and experiences we raise here are hardly rare.

    Finally, I’m glad to hear the AAA is committed to exceeding the ADA. It would be great if it could also be committed to disability justice. And as for recommendations, don’t worry, the DIRG will continue to make them. If the AAA would like to be a better ally, I’d recommend buying copies of the Sins Invalid disability justice primer Skin, Tooth, Bone for everyone in the office and on the executive committee. Here is a review with instructions: https://tinyurl.com/ydgzlck3

  4. I’ve found this to be true asa fellow academic in political science and law, surrounded by friends and peers supposedly focused on “social justice!”

  5. Thank you for this very necessary intervention. I found grad school in anthropology to be an incredibly ablest space. When I developed a health condition which caused chronic pain and chronic fatigue, among other symptoms which made it difficult to write a dissertation, I was explicitly told told I could either tough it out or leave. Even faculty I informed of my medical condition, treated my difficulties as being a sign of lack of motivation or dedication to my research.

  6. There is still a premium on “Cowboy Anthropology.” I also think that anthro has lost status as a discipline in our, at best, neo-liberal times, just as we also see great demographic diversity changes among anthropologists. No one dares say there is a causative connection between loss of status and the feminizing, browning, queening, and cripping of anthropologists, but do they think it? Do they feel but not express it?

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