Can disability studies and the academy co-exist?

            There has been some discussion within the disability studies community about access within it, mainly focused on academic concerns.  A special issue of The Feminist Wire on feminist disability concerns brought up many important concerns, but two articles in particular focused on how the values of academia have taken control of the field of disability studies, ones that may be at odds with the disability community and, to some, the historical understanding of what disability studies ought to be about.

       One such article is Corbett O’Toole (2013, November 24) on “Economic Barriers in Disability Studies” O’Toole argues that economic barriers have created significant burdens to the field of disability studies. Among the points that O’Toole makes is that conferences, specifically that of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS), have managed to create a significant cost burden that many people with disabilities, and many able bodied scholars for that matter, cannot afford. This, she argues, means that for many people with disabilities, it is difficult to afford to attend a conference about them.

     The second article is Elizabeth Grace’s article “Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care)” (2013, November 22, found at Grace argues that language ought to be accessible to people with a variety of disabilities including cognitive disability. Grace acknowledges that there are important reasons why academic prose is not written in “register”, but believes that this convention does not have the advantage of “access” or “justice”. Grace thinks that a cognitively accessible language could still present complex ideas, but in a way that would be “readable” to a broader audience.

     As a disclaimer, I am a member of the Society for Disability Studies and have attended and presented papers at four of their conferences. I would also like to note that although I write of the field of disability studies in this blog, I believe other fields (at least some) of study might also find relevance in this discussion.

    The Society for Disability Studies has some very significant physical accessibility resources that many academic conferences lack. For example, it offers CART, individuals to repeat what people with speech related disabilities and autism (those who have issues with “normal speech”) have to say (or type), sometimes food at official functions responsive to various dietary needs and preferences, and so forth.

     That being said, the economic factor that O’Toole notes is present as a barrier to some people and others have experienced a cognitive barrier, not just at SDS, but also in relation to the increasingly academic nature of disability studies. This has been an issue that at least some have noted for at least several years. That being said, solutions have not come easy. A live, in-person conference, even without the type of physical access that SDS typically provides for its participants, can come with a significant cost factor, which as noted can post limits on those present.

     These commentaries have led me to think about the status quo, especially within academia, and marginalized identities. It seems as if one camp, people that are like-minded to O’Toole’s proposals, would like to see disability studies as a fringe area of study, perhaps not even academic in the conventional sense, but rather take an activist path. Others might prefer a more status quo sense of the world, one that O’Toole argues comes from the “White, male business model so common in academia”. This is more of an academic status quo. It is not that individuals who believe this is a right course necessarily do not care about economic access. They may, in fact, purport to care very much about this issue. However, these individuals are more likely to view disability studies as primarily an academic field and, thus, see a need for disability studies to acquiesce to some level of academic norms.

     There are some good arguments for the academic status quo view of disability studies. For one thing, individuals with institutional affiliations within academia usually are subject to review standards at their home institutions. These standards are, in fact, based on general academic values. These standards are engrained in the academy (some dating back to the Middle Ages) and, thus, systematic and hard to change. However, academia still carries with it some sense of legitimacy in wider society. Having disability studies discussed in the academy brings the subject some sense of legitimacy that it would otherwise not have.

      Moreover, because many professionals need to go through the post-secondary educational system, disability studies can perhaps have a positive impact on future members of the health professions, humanists, policy makers, and attorneys.  The experience of learning about disability through a disability studies lens can perhaps play a significant role in reshaping society. Relatedly, if these individuals apply what they learn, they can assist in making the disability studies view of disability the social norm.

     However, if disability studies does not attend to the practical realities of academia, it will not be able to retain legitimacy within the academy and, thus, it is less likely these things can happen within it. The conventions of academia, whether for good or not (and not only for reasons related to disability), often call for advanced language and travel to conferences. This may or may not be a good thing, but it is a reality.

    The other side of the argument deals with how the academy, particularly the more traditional version of the academy, deals with the lives of real people. The argument that proponents of a more relevant field of disability studies, like O’Toole and Grace, argue that the field of disability studies ought to be invested in finding ways to be relevant to people (specifically people with disabilities). Thus, the traditional trappings of academia and its conventions are not something that should apply to the field of disability studies. Their vision is of a field that offers something that is more conducive to exploration of the field both inside and outside of the field.

    As I see it, the field of disability studies has three choices. These choices will be somewhat collective in nature; some will be made individually; some will be a mixture of the two. First, disability studies can continue as par the course. This means a continued emphasis on the growth of the field in an academic setting. There would be room for others, of course, but those who lack an institutional affiliation would have to basically function in an alt-ac capacity as it is more traditionally defined, that is individuals who do academia, but do not function in a traditional graduate student or faculty capacity (e.g. Pannapacker, 2012, January, 8 found at Although alternative academics seek other spaces inside and outside the academy, they never really give up the institutional values of academia. That means keeping academic values such as “academic” language, having in-person scholarly conferences, and so forth. The chief advantage is that disability studies can stay within the context of the academy without having to change very much. The higher education educational system is, while not the only place where research and dissemination can be done, the traditional place for learning beyond the secondary school level and is already a major producer of research. The disadvantage, of course, of this system is that there is a tendency in some quarters of academia to speak to a limited audience, intentionally or not, thereby allowing certain fields to become insular.

      Another thing that might be possible would be to re-create a more activist disability studies, stemming more back to the roots of the field than the place some in the field accuse disability studies of being today. This is more along the lines of what I read O’Toole and Grace arguing for. This activist stand would recognize that the field of disability studies is something different and, thus, the usual rules of academia do not apply to this situation.

      This sort of way of doing disability studies would actually apply some post-academia values (see Whitehead & Miller, 2013, March 1, found at The post-ac movement takes a much more radical view of academia than alternative academia does. Its concern is more along the lines of the way academia disempowers people within it and discourages the continuation of current trends. To the extent that post-academia discourages some of the processes and values of academia, the proposals of O’Toole and Grace may have some post-academic value (Whitehead and Miller believe that it is possible to be post-academic even if one works in an academic or alternative academic setting).

      However, what the post-ac movement does not do is to encourage a continuation of an academic space as it is traditionally defined. The advantage of changing (or reverting to) values of disability studies is that it avoids some of the problems of “not speaking to” the kinds of people it is meant to serve. Moreover, it might provide a more accessible and efficient way of doing academia.

    The disadvantage is that it is a major affront to academia, which means that there would have to be substantial change not just in disability studies, but possibly in academia in general (many of those that practice disability studies in the academy do so within home disciplines). This would mean that many individuals will need their home institutions to be okay with this different way of doing things. This may be a glacier process at best. Change often does not come quickly to academia if it comes at all. Meanwhile, these changes could be quite devastating to the careers of emerging scholars who may, themselves, be conservative risk takers in a job market which is tight in many fields.

    Might there be a third option? Can academia and the more applied world co-exist, but still be able to communicate with one another? To illustrate this model, I would like to draw on the world of the natural sciences and its relation to government and/or industry. In some cases, the work of scientists is mostly an academic thing. This work is not of much use to government/industry and its unlikely that it will receive as much funding from these sources as more useful research, but it still appears in academic journals, at conferences, and so forth. Other research has some value in government and industry. These research projects are of interest to industry and government, and may receive some grant money, but is mostly thought of as being an “academic” thing and, thus, while affiliated government/industry scientists and others might have interest in the findings, it mostly stays within the realm of academia with perhaps some collaboration or interest from these organizations, especially those in an alternative academic (i.e. research and development) capacity. Some discoveries, however, are of great interest to government and industry. These may cause these individuals to want to fund these studies and government / industry might also collaborate in the work. This is more of a partnership. Yes, sometimes business and government might even get involved in the study to the extent that they essentially manage the project.

     I wonder if perhaps this model might be workable for disability studies. There could be recognition that some work is incredibly academic in nature and, thus, needs the academic structure. Some work may be of interest to both groups of people and could be presented in multiple formats with perhaps a simpler format when talking to certain advocates. This would not, however, need to deviate from the basic academic premise of the work. A third strand could be work “for” and “by” people with a variety of disabilities that includes those outside of the academic realm. This would include simpler language and, perhaps, have more of a relevant, applied emphasis to it (although not necessarily). It would be a fully accessible space, even if that space is not in the traditional sense of the word. Those that presented would have to respect that space.

    I know that many in disability studies are not a fan of dichotomies. They may see these spaces as creating false dichotomies of segregation, ones that many people with disabilities know too well. While it is certainly a valid to try to end certain dichotomies, I think it is naïve to pretend that difference does not exist. Moreover, I am skeptical that a space that is a) mostly run by individuals from academia or b) is run on the values of academia, even if that is an alternative academia as either traditionally defined or as articulated by disability studies scholars, can really coincide with a fully accessible field. While these things may be wonderful to think about (and work toward), there needs to be a recognition that this is going to be a very slow process (at best). Instead, I think it would be better (and perhaps as much or more inclusive) to respect the values, histories, cultures, and dignity of both groups. It may not be the preferred solution to either group, but it does replace an “either/or” with an “and”, a word that is by its nature much more inclusive than exclusive.    


9 thoughts on “Can disability studies and the academy co-exist?

  1. Who are you? Do we know each other? I cannot find author data. This piece is awesome! I am Grace, the cognitive access in language writer. Your idea number three gets to the giant problem of how many people actually within academia are disabled and/or lack funding, so the ultra dichotomous “versus” thinking is just not very good. My brother works in a field where he does academics about real life inventions he’s engineering so I can ask him how this kind of partnership works in graphic detail–all thanks to your great brain! W00t! Come to SDS and let me know you are you! Love, Ib

    1. Thank you for your comment, Dr. Grace.
      I’ve been to SDS four times and AERA and the Second City Disability Studies in Education Conference, but don’t know that I’ve ever met you in person.
      What appeals to me about the natural sciences model is that people can get what they need (in terms of interest). Funding, in that field, represents a type of buy-in and prestige. I don’t know if disability studies would operate in that particular way, but imagine “investment” might range from the literal (i.e. grants) to the figurative (buy-in or usefulness) for people with disabilities.
      Something else I was thinking about when I was thinking about the third model was the humanities and social science theory. These things can be useful to those who study disability from a more applied perspective in providing theory and promote / preserve / advance the history and culture. In fact, some work is even applied in less academic settings. For example, some independent living centers use basic disability studies texts to illustrate a different conceptualization of disability studies than what the larger culture may suggest. It’s also important because sometimes the wider culture utilizes disability in less positive terms(I’m thinking of bioethics, especially, here, but it’s used elsewhere). This more medical / deficit oriented model of disability becomes the prevailing cultural model and is sometimes even put to practical use. It’s, therefore, important to promoting disability studies oriented views that individuals are able to debate these issues in an educated way so as to counteract a deficit oriented view of disability.
      Once again, thanks for commenting.
      Andrew Bennett

      1. Brilliant! Are you going to be able to make it to SDS this coming time? It will only be my second. I can’t find your bio on here but I tried sending you a friend request on Facebook because when I shared this article to my page saying I wish I knew who wrote it, a mutual friend recognized your writing. –Ib

      2. Ib –
        I have not decided if I’m coming to SDS this year or not. My mother’s very interested in environmentalism and sustainability and is involved in that as part of her professional work. We once talked about doing a joint paper for this conference.
        Another factor is that I’ve applied to a couple of internship programs, which would conflict with the conference.
        I’ve enjoyed going to SDS and other conferences in the past. Since I’m not presently in grad school or working in academia, I have not been to one in about a year and a half.
        Andrew Bennett

  2. I would just like to clarify one small point. I intentionally wrote my article (I am OToole) without naming any specific Disability Studies organization or event because the problems I identified exist throughout the field.

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