Disability Matters series creates dialogue about the benefit of differences

UChicago graduate students have launched a university-sponsored speaker series on disability with the goal of spurring conversation about disability “as a critical category and as a lived experience.”

The Disability Matters series began recently with an inaugural lecture to a standing room crowd of students, faculty and community members. The talk by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of women’s studies at Emory University, was part of a larger effort by the University and the Organization of Students with Disabilities to create more dialogue about disability on campus.

“Disability is a resource, rather than a restriction,” Garland-Thomson said at the inaugural lecture last quarter, offering examples of how everyone experiences disabilities at some point in their lives.

Her lecture, “Why Disability? Or, Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World,” challenged the idea that society would benefit if disabilities did not exist. People with disabilities enrich the world, not necessarily or only through economic means, “but simply through our presence,” Garland-Thomson said.

Graduate students Stephen Pannuto and Margaret Fink organized the event as part of the Disability Matters series, which they spearheaded. “We’re trying to move beyond an environment where students with disabilities simply ask for accommodations,” Pannuto said, “and start to feel more empowered to talk about disability in public spaces.” 

Pannuto said he is committed to helping UChicago build a community in which “students with disabilities not only survive but thrive.”

“This lecture series heightens the awareness of disability on campus in a positive fashion,” said Gregory Moorehead, director of Student Disability Services. His office provides resources, support and accommodations for all students with disabilities.

“People with disabilities contribute valuable perspectives to the University community, like many other underrepresented minorities,” Moorehead said.

Pannuto and Fink created the Disability Matters series using a Graduate Innovation Grant, an initiative through the Office of the Provost that sponsors student-generated programs and services for graduate students. Lectures and follow-up workshops bring students into contact with leaders in the field of disability studies. 

Fink ensured that the event was accessible and welcoming to everyone who wanted to attend. Among the audience members were many people from Chicago’s larger disability community. The lecture had real-time captioning and an ASL interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing, as will the other events in the Disability Matters series.

The students of professors Morris Fred and Don Kulick, who co-teach an “Anthropology of Disability” class, also attended the lecture. “I had a student tell me after the lecture that it was the first time she had understood disability as a value-producing identity,” Pannuto said.

Fink reflected afterwards on the benefit of a campus-wide dialogue about disability. “Rosemarie’s lecture offered a good introduction for people who may not have thought much about disability,” she said.

“It feels great to have the support and interest of people outside the small disabled community at the University,” she said. She and Pannuto also lead the Organization for Students with Disabilities.

Fink notes that the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions, the Department of English Language and Literature, and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality also have supported her efforts to “present disability as something worthy of everyone’s attention.”

The next lecture in the series will be, “Crip Displacements: Disability, Dispossession and Resistance,” which will address the overlap of disability studies and queer theory. Robert McRuer, professor of English at George Washington University, will present the talk on Thursday, Jan. 30 and meet with students the next day in a workshop.