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Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology Sponsors Session on Disability

Today’s guest blog post comes from Devva Kasnitz (Society for Disability Studies) and highlights an upcoming panel discussion entitled “Tidemarks and Frontiers: Disability in Anthropology“. This discussion will be held on Thursday, November 17, 2011 from 10:15-12:00pm. Thanks Devva!

In Montreal, the Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology (CMIA) is pleased to sponsor a panel called Tidemarks and Frontiers: Disability in Anthropology, organized by Amber Clifford-Napoleon. I will have the honor of participating along with Joseph Kaufert, Jill LeClair, Karen Besterman-Dehan, and Discussant Lenore Manderson. Disability issues have been reframed and a growing part of academia since disability studies emerged as a new specialty in the 1980s. The right to full access has been part of higher education law since 1974 and general law from 1993. Why then is it still a frontier? Why is it an active area of concern for the Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology?

PANEL ABSTRACT: In 1993, the AAA adopted a statement on disability stating that the AAA “encourages faculty to adopt and apply an attitude of acceptance, adventure, collegiality, and respect toward disabled persons in the attainment of their goals, and commit themselves to becoming knowledgeable with regard to disabilities through interactions with disabled persons (including students), seeking expert input, and reading texts outside of mainstream anthropology on the topic of disability.” While this statement represented a tidemark for both disabled anthropologists and the anthropologists of disability, there are still many frontiers left ignored. How has anthropology responded to the AAA call for disability awareness? On this 110th anniversary of the AAA, what challenges remain for disabled anthropologists and anthropologists of disability within the discipline and the profession? Have anthropologists “committed themselves” to a deeper understanding of disability?

The panel session “Tidemarks and Frontiers: Disability in Anthropology” will bring together anthropologists to discuss and explore the status of disability in 21st century anthropology. Panelists will discuss the historical position of disability in the AAA, the intersections of disability with other categories of difference, and the importance of a focus on disability in holistic anthropological research. The panelists will also examine the challenges of accessibility, visibility, and professional parity that disabled anthropologists face within the profession, as well as the issues anthropologists of disability frame as integral to understanding cultural experience.

 At first I was hesitant to participate. I’m a bit tired of being the only visibly disabled person talking about marginalization in the Association and the profession. But, I am new to the Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology and although my campaign was not the first to mention disability as a major experience of minority, it was the first one to foreground it successfully. Bringing my CMIA colleagues up to date, we have talked about the AAA Presidential Commission Disability of the 1990s and the Society for Medical Anthropology, Disability Research Special Interest Group (DRSIG), which is almost 30 years old. Has anthropology and the AAA responded to the 1993 statement on disability in the abstract above? Somewhat, you judge.

Internal to AAA, the SMA DRSIG would prefer to not have to be concerned with issues of meeting access. However, when people have problems, they come to us. There have been enough of these of late that we are trying to build some structure. To date, AAA has dealt with access issues on an individual basis. Our sessions have always been scheduled exactly as we request, once we learned to make very specific, unsolicited requests with our session proposals. AAA has well recognized that planning can avoid problems.

Relatively few individuals make disability access requests. Accommodation for D/deaf members has been the most trying (and expensive to AAA), with confusion over sign interpretation versus live captioning or an FM loop. There is the further confusion in that disability studies and D/eaf studies are not the same and that many students of both or either are organized academically within AAA in linguistics or education, or among the Senior Anthropologists, and do not necessarily identify with medical anthropology. (Our DRSIG has thought of moving to CAE.) However, it is long overdue that all disabled AAA members and their allies know what to expect and how to request best practice solutions to well understood access issues and to new challenges.

In my paper, I’ll use myself as an example. After over 40 years of regular attendance and active participation, I am as “out” as disabled as any AAA member. As my speech impairment worsened in the last 15 years, I always present with a “revoicer,” a “voice interpreter” or echo who repeats my words. My colleagues have always done this for me. However, in the last 5 years I have realized this is getting more difficult for them, some of them are now having hearing issues, and it also makes me less independent. Also, I want to set an example for young speech-impaired scholars of the help they have the right to request whether to deliver a paper, go to the placement service, or try to sell a manuscript to a publisher at the book exhibit. This year, for the first time, I decided to ask AAA to hire me a revoicer for 2 of my 4 official AAA responsibilities, my paper presentation and the Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology meeting. In the service of AAA financial austerity, I plan on continuing to request help from colleagues for the 2 events I will Chair, a panel and the DRSIG.

First, I filled out the “ADA” needs field of the required registration for the March 15th 2011 deadline for an invited session. The field allowed only a brief note “I will require a “revoicer.” The best source is an ASL interpreter. Another option may be possible t” and I was cut off. I thought, “oh well, they will need to contact me anyhow.” In the scheduling field I had already entered “Because of significant speech impairment I use a voice interpreter, or revoicer. This is not like ASL or other simultaneous translation. Therefore, the chair of any session I am in may ask for up to double time for me to present.” Second, the email informing us of the scheduling of our session concluded with “Lastly, if you need an invitation letter, handicap accessibility request or for any other information, please feel free to contact us.” Well, I had done that. Finally, concerned that I hadn’t heard anything and I needed to tell AAA about the CMIA meeting, I asked and was directed to the “Request for Meeting Accessibility Assistance” lined form on the website.

There are 2 problems here. First, we need a single clear, consistent, and highly visible point of entry into a disability accommodation request process. The more important problem, as Joe Kaufert’s paper will explore, is the significance behind the discourse used. As soon as requests for disability related assistance are tied to the ADA, we enter the world of law. The clear implication is that only what clearly fits the ADA is acceptable. The ADA is a floor, not a ceiling to help achieve disability justice. It is as if we have returned to a time when only reference to specific laws could justify requests for racial justice. Further, I can’t ever imagine needing a “handicap accessibility request.” I do not need any further access to handicap. Few people who might want to make a request could get past this antiquated language. It sounds like “negro” sounds to critical race scholars. The website simply says “meeting accessibility.” I like that except that access is not only a disability or deafness issue and the form is clearly oriented to D/deaf, or wheelchair using, AAA members.

Having the opportunity to raise these issues in the context of the Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology is a huge step forward for disabled AAA members and will be part of the solution. AAA, and anthropology as a profession, lags behind other disciplines and their associations in what it has learned from disability studies and about meeting disability access. Jill LeClair will explore how disability is an understudied research variable. This is ironic as anthropologists have disproportionately been involved in the development of disability studies. Three of the last four presidents of the Society for Disability Studies are anthropologists. Karen Besterman-Dehan’s presentation will consider this theme. AAA needs to recognize, celebrate, and enhance this contribution to local and international disability justice as it gets its own house in order.


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