Scholar Speaks About Disability Through History

Middlebury College professor Susan Burch visited Scripps College on March 10 to present a lecture entitled “Disorderly Histories: Revisiting the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902-1934.” The lecture raised questions about the American model of medicine, issues of cultural misunderstanding, and discomfort around mental health. 

Burch, an associate professor of American studies, focused primarily on the story of Elizabeth Faribault. After acting out in front of an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1915, Faribault, then 22 years old, found herself living in the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians in South Dakota, an institution that housed over 400 Native American men, women, and children in the early 20th century. 

Burch used Faribault’s story to draw attention to the relationship between race,
gender, and disability in American history and contemporary society.

Kimberly Drake, an associate professor of writing at Scripps, helped organize the lecture in response to student interest in disability in society. She and Jennifer Armstrong, an associate professor of biology at Scripps, are teaching a Core II class, Constructions of Disability.  

thought that this matched up perfectly to the pedagogy of the Core program at
Scripps, and we knew our students would not only learn a great deal from her
presentation but also find in her a role model and an ally,” Drake wrote in an email to TSL

In her lecture, Burch raised important questions about
perceptions of mental health as well as indigenous rights in the United States. She asked students to consider the impact and influence of disability, the clash of
cultural understanding, and views on power and privilege here at the Claremont Colleges.

“I would like to ponder with you the social construction of what we call the Western medical model of medicine and disability, concepts of well-being and disability, and their entanglement with other systems of power and privilege,” Burch said.

She said that the labels that people are given do not define them, but rather define the society of which they are a part.

“Life stories really demonstrate that even individuals that
have been given medical labels or dislocated have impact that goes far beyond
those individuals,” she said.

In her lecture, Burch talked about the social constructions around disabilities and mental health that continue today, even after institutions like Canton have been shut down.

Drake wrote that she does not think mental health and indigenous rights receive enough consideration at the 5Cs. 

“Neither of those topics are discussed enough in the curriculum
or out of it, although I’m happy to see some student organizing recently in
both areas,” she wrote. “I think that when a topic hasn’t ever appeared in the curriculum, that gap often continues until students connect with each other, with an interested faculty member, with an administrator, and/or with other activists and start organizing and agitating for change, and keep that movement going after they graduate.” 

Colin Belanger PO ’14, the president of the 5C Mental
Health Alliance, wrote in an email to TSL that student dialogue often focuses on clinical
treatment of the topic, but he hopes students will become more open to
discussing issues surrounding mental health. He said that discomfort around
the topic must be addressed.

about mental health issues on campus are more often than not done in very
oblique terms, like that it’s happening somewhere, but not here,” Belanger wrote. “Perhaps not
surprisingly, many people don’t think about mental health in a personal context
until it detrimentally affects them or someone they know.” 

Belanger added that it is important to consider how people define the terms associated with mental illness. 

“What it really comes down to is how we define ‘abnormal,’ no small task when it comes to the variety of ways a
person may feel, think, and act towards something,” he wrote. “With mental health remaining
such a large [part] of the healthcare system—not to mention one’s own conception of
identity—these sorts of issues and ideas are critically important to be aware

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