Disability, Pedagogy, and Religious Studies

Years ago, I was talking with my friend David Coco, a physicist, about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations and how universities budget for them, or fail to. David wished that administrators (and everyone) would see accommodations as overhead expenses – like the lights. “Since I’m sighted, I need light to do my job. Employers assume that if employees need light to do their jobs, the employer pays for it. Accommodation is just about providing what people need to do their jobs. Nobody complains about the electric bill.” I added, “And nobody ever says, let’s hire an all-blind work force because it would save big money on the electric bill.” It would.

We build environments and practices to accommodate bodies and minds. For non-disabled people, these accommodations simply are our existing practices. This unfortunately renders their nature as accommodations invisible to those who use them. Consider some daily accommodations that one usually doesn’t see as such. My kitchen counter is just the right height for me to have reach and coordination over it. My coffee machine puts an amount of liquid into a carafe that is a size and weight that I can pick up and easily pour. I do not have wings with which to fly up to my third-floor apartment, and the builders planned for flight-disabled bodies by building stairs. And my schools and employers have never complained about paying an electric bill for me to see my work. It’s not so much that the non-disabled person is already accommodated; being already-accommodated is what renders one non-disabled.

That may seem overly theoretical for the sort of post where one usually expects nuts-and-bolts guidance on how to include students with disabilities.* I’ll get to that. But first, I want to change how you think about disability. In the dominant ideology we absorb with our socialization, disability is a feature of bodies or minds that make them not “normal.” People seem to believe that this “normal” is statistical, when in fact, it is ideological – as is the underlying assumption that social practice should only accommodate (i.e. be built for) “normal” body-minds.** Try to detect these assumptions in your daily life: what structures and practices do you encounter that assume and accommodate a certain type of body-mind? How many of these are matters of decision – how to design and build something, customary social habits, etc.? A much wider range of practice is possible, so why do we choose not to embrace it? Disability is not just a feature of body-minds; it arises when particular body-minds come into contact with particular environments. By drawing attention to the social contribution to disability, disability studies focuses our attention on what we can do change social practices and value people in more forms of embodiment.

This is not to say that bodies, emotions, and cognition do not differ across individuals, or for a single individual over time. They do. Rather, we need to perceive the distinctions among (1) mind-body qualities, (2) concepts such as “disabled,” and (3) social valuations. “Normal” is just as constructed and context-dependent as “disabled,” and both are modern concepts. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift already shows up the construction of “normal” by placing his protagonist in lands built to different bodily scales. Gulliver proceeds with when-in-Rome aplomb, but does not (in my view) have his sense of his own normality seriously shaken until he encounters the Houyhnhnms. In ways too numerous to mention, science fiction has also questioned the normal/disabled construction. A 1990s-style approach can be found in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Melora,” in which a person from a planet with lower gravity than Earth comes to work on the station. Ensign Melora Pazlar needs to use a wheel-chair and braces to function in the higher-g environment; at one point, she remarks that the Earth officers would need accommodations to function in her planet’s gravity. Being the “right” size, or functional in the “right” gravity, is not an absolute quality of bodies or minds. Pretending otherwise excludes people who could be included.

These examples from imaginative worlds are not even metaphors. Beings with different bodies, sensory endowments, cognitive capabilities and emotionalities exist on this planet, now, and some of us are in your classroom.

Now for the nuts and bolts.

  1. Accessibility Statement in Syllabus. Mainly, have one. Even if your university does not require a syllabus statement, compliance with federal law is not optional. Including one signals to students that you are aware of the presence of students with disabilities and of the law. Use the terms “access,” “accommodation,” and “disability.” These are standard in the field of disability studies and in the law, and are not offensive in current usage. Do not use “handicapped,” “differently abled,” any adverb + “challenged,” or “special.” Providing an environment in which students can learn is what we’re supposed to do, for everyone. It shouldn’t be “special.” (For more detailed discussion, see this PraxisWiki post.)
  2. Privacy Issues. Do not identify students with disabilities in front of the class. This takes away the student’s agency to decide whether to self-disclose to others. Students notice when this trust is violated. Further, students are not legally required to disclose the nature of their disabilities to professors, so do not ask. (Would you ask about their sexual orientation or gender identity? Just don’t.) All professors need to know is what accommodations to provide and whether they are working for the person who needs them.
  3. Accommodation is a Process. If your college, university, or seminary has standard procedures, they should go something like this: the student registers with a disability services office; that office determines which accommodations to use, based on the medical documentation; professors sign off on providing those accommodations. As the term gets underway, follow up with the student (privately) about whether the accommodations are effective. If the student approaches you about trying different accommodations, be flexible. If your institution does not have a standard policy, consider advocating that it get one. (While I think it needs some updating, UC Berkeley’s disability policy page is quite detailed.)
  4. Class Presentation. Strive to be disability-aware in your syllabus and class presentation. At the very least, avoid using stigmatizing language and inaccessible course materials. Do not speak of people with disabilities in ways that you would not speak other groups. Better yet, actively employ disability perspectives in your syllabus and class. It is likely that you will have, in any given class, students with disabilities who choose not register with the bureaucracy or self-disclose to the instructor. Don’t assume that no one has a disability just because no one has identified. (For a powerful example of how not to do classroom discourse, see philosopher Elizabeth Barnes‘s recent post on “hypothetical” discussions of ending the lives of people with disabilities.)
  5. Texts of Terror, Interpretive Stances. The Bible and many works in the literary and philosophical canon treat disability in a negative manner. I do not mean to generalize about that negativity; there are noticeable differences across cultural contexts, and everything must be historicized. However, academe does not yet have the awareness of disability representations that it has toward gender (for instance). While I would be delighted if more RS scholars engaged in disability studies, for the purposes of pedagogy, just be aware that students with disabilities are likely to receive this material in a different – and valuable – way than non-disabled students. Further, many people with disabilities have the experience of others’ interpreting their disabilities according to those others’ religious views. (Examples: “If you had faith, you wouldn’t have X.” “In heaven, you will be normal.” These are microaggressions.) Conversely, people with disabilities may see meanings in texts, beliefs, or practices that others don’t notice or construct. Avoid unreflectively accepting the categories and valuations of disability indigenous to the texts or artifacts, even if the latter are sacred to a community. Especially if they’re sacred.

Disabilities come in many varieties, and accommodations may seem perplexing to the uninitiated. But the underlying ethos isn’t all that complicated. Our modes of embodiment are many and real. Our social environments actively support some mind-bodies while creating barriers to others. The latter is not a function of embodied differences by themselves, but rather enacts ideologies of how our society allocates status and power based on forms of embodiment. Those of us who fall outside the set of already-accommodated embodiments are not lesser; our embodiments and experiences are epistemically and ethically valuable contributions to knowledge and life. We belong in your classroom.


*In general, current preference is for person-first language. However, for some groups and individuals, a descriptor signals one’s social identity, and on that grounds prefer identity-first language. Ask your students which they prefer.

** On ideological construction of norm, see the introductory chapters of Rosemary Garland-Thomson, Lennard Davis, or David Mitchell & Sharon Snyder.

This post draws, in part, on my presentations to campus groups and at the SBL Student Advisory Committee session on Persons With Disability Issues in the Academy, Annual Meeting, San Diego, November 22,2014.

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