Disability studies workshop invites community to share perspectives

April 29th 2015
Arts & Humanities, Giving
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What makes people disabled? Their own bodies? Or the world around them?

"Think about it," says Elisabeth Miller, an English graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We assume that a certain kind of body can go up a stairway. So we build stairs. But it's the stairs — that social creation, that construct — that actually disable people."

The "lived experience" of disability is under discussion this spring in the Disability Studies/Disability Activism workshop organized by Miller and other faculty and graduate students in art history, gender and women's studies, English, and communication arts. Participants include a range of faculty and students from medicine to physics to the humanities, as well as community members and leaders from Disability Pride, a local advocacy movement.

Organized to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which ensures the civil rights of the disabled through access to public accommodations, employment, transportation, and more, the interdisciplinary workshop, which offers panels and presentations open to the public, deals with much more than issues of access.

Elisabeth Miller, a graduate student in the Department of English, helped organized the Disability Studies/Disability Activism workshop. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science) Elisabeth Miller, a graduate student in the Department of English, helped organized the Disability Studies/Disability Activism workshop. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

"We aren't approaching disability as a 'problem,' or something missing, which has been the medical model," says Miller. "We are looking at the social model, which explores how disability is expressed through, or affected by, words, art, design, and perhaps most important, community."

For the past 14 years, the Center for the Humanities has helped faculty and students organize more than 75 year-long workshops around interdisciplinary topics as diverse as the effect of comics (like those in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo) on society, to what constitutes a "good" childhood. The workshops are part of an ongoing program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, recently re-named the Borghesi-Mellon Workshops series in honor of a matching gift from UW-Madison alumni Nancy (B.A.'69, Economics) and David Borghesi (BBA'70, Accounting).

The idea, says Sara Guyer, director of the Center for the Humanities, is for students and faculty to think together outside the classroom. "The workshops are like labs," Guyer says. "Ideas are tested, run through a set of scholarly questions, and people arrive at a new way of thinking, or seeing, or listening. The result is often wholly unpredictable."

What's new this year, with the Disability Studies/Disability Activism workshop, is the community component. "Nothing about us, without us" is the rallying slogan of the disability rights movement. All events throughout the fall and spring have been open to the public. For a fall panel on disability rights, Miller invited Jason Glozier, a disability rights specialist with the city of Madison. His job, as profiled in a recent Madison Magazine cover story, is to ensure that all city buildings and facilities adhere to ADA regulations — not just in the letter, but in the spirit of the law.

"It was really enlightening for us, as scholars, to hear community leaders like Jason talking about everyday life for disabled people in this city," says Miller.

Pity and paternalism are the dominant emotions toward disabled people, says Glozier. He sees the disability studies workshop, with its focus on bringing community members and scholars together, as an exciting way to shift the paradigm.

"These public discussions encourage more of an empowerment model," he says. "People in the disability community feel that medicine and academia do a lot of 'studying of' … and this is more 'studying with.'"

Guyer Guyer

Exciting, too, for Guyer and her staff, who received news earlier this academic year that the workshops would be endowed to ensure their longevity. Nancy Borghesi, a member of the College of Letters & Science Board of Visitors, and her husband David Borghesi have generously provided the matching support for a 2:1 grant from the Mellon Foundation, to establish the Borghesi-Mellon Workshop Fund, which will be administered through the Center for the Humanities.

"You want to support the people who are making a difference," says Borghesi. "We believe Sara is showing a great deal of leadership in her field. Things are happening at the Center for the Humanities that are important for the university."