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Arts & Humanities

Disability studies help professor illustrate virtues of inclusion

Often the research that faculty members conduct informs the classes they teach. The process also worked in reverse for Beth Jörgensen in 2009.

Jörgensen, a professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, was preparing to teach a class on "coming of age" stories in Spanish America. She wanted to include a collaborative autobiography of Gabriela Brimmer, a Mexican woman who was profoundly disabled since birth with cerebral palsy, yet learned to communicate by manipulating an alphabet board with the toe of her left foot. Eventually Brimmer became a leading activist for the rights of disabled people in that nation.

"I did not know that much about disability studies," Jörgensen confides. "So, in order to teach this in an informed way, I got busy reading as much background as I could about disability life writing."

It was a revelation for her. Her reading:

1. Helped her reevaluate how disabled people traditionally have been depicted in literature. "Whether it is Oedipus with his limping leg, or blind seers in the ancient texts, or Dickens's Tiny Tim, characters with disabilities have been pervasive in world literature, and yet their presence often says little about what it really means to live with a disability," Jörgensen noted. Instead, they often serve primarily as a "narrative prosthesis" — a device to create interest or advance the plot. They also may serve as a metaphor of a social ill, or as a device prompting the moral improvement of a non-disabled character. Disability studies approaches to literature and the recent emergence of disability life writing — autobiographies and other accounts in which disabled people describe their experiences — have helped rectify that.

2. Reshaped her understanding of disability and the concept of accommodation. "This building has heat in the winter," Jörgensen noted during an interview in her office in Lattimore Hall. "That's an accommodation to my physical need for warmth. Society accommodates all of us. Our whole infrastructure, including our highway system and roads, makes our way of life possible, although we tend to take it for granted. Is it really a special accommodation, then, to put in curb cuts for people with disabilities?"

3. Disclosed to her the scarcity of scholarship on how disabled people have been depicted during the last century in Latin American literature and film. "In 2009 I could find only one book and a handful of articles about Latin American literature that had been done from the disability studies standpoint," she said.

Seven years later, she is co-editor and contributor to Libre Acceso (State University of New York Press, 2016), a collection of essays that Jörgensen and co-editor Susan Antebi of the University of Toronto hope will further scholarship in this area.

The essay topics include:

1. How Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges viewed his progressive blindness as both a gift and a curse. "By not conceiving of blindness purely as a deficit, but as a mode of being in the world, Borges forces us to consider the value of disability and difference. Blindness has things to teach us," writes Kevin Goldstein.

2. An examination of Gabriel García Márquez's landmark novel One Hundred Years of Solitude through the lens of Asperger's Syndrome. "My suggestion is simple but extremely difficult at the same time," essayist Juan Manuel Espinosa writes. "Read Asperger's syndrome like a magical realist fiction, letting AS imaginations marvel us and teach us how varied and wonderfully complex the organization of the world may be."

3. Jörgensen's own examination of the life writings of Gabriela Brimmer and Ekiwah Adler-Beléndez, a bilingual, bicultural poet in Mexico who also has cerebral palsy. "Reading their work from a disability studies perspective expands our understanding of the complexities and the possibilities of negotiating geographies of exclusion and access in Latin America," Jörgensen writes.

Throughout the essays, common themes emerge, such as the "intersectionality" that occurs when one is not only disabled, but poor, and a minority member of society. "You can't just isolate the disability as if nothing else were also determining that person's destiny," Jörgensen said.

"All of the essays," she adds, "make a case for the importance of inclusion, of how much we miss out on the richness of human diversity if we are not inclusive of people with disabilities."

For Jörgensen, her scholarly journey into disability studies "is an example of how teaching a single book, and trying to bone up on what I needed to know to do a good job of teaching that book, opened a new field for me."

Her new research, in turn, has contributed back to Jörgensen's classroom teaching. This past fall she taught a new course on "Disability Studies: Rethinking Difference and Diversity." Jörgensen introduces students to scholarship that treats disability identities as both embodied realities, and social and cultural constructions. The course also explores the literary representations of physical, intellectual, and psychosocial disability in works chosen from a variety of national traditions.

In her class, as in Libre Acceso, Jorgensen treats disability not as a deficit, but as a form of human diversity that can instruct us all.