At 7C Disability Summit, Students and Faculty Discuss Identity, Oppression

The first annual Disability Summit at the Claremont Colleges was held on Pomona College’s campus last Saturday, Feb. 27, bringing together students, faculty, and staff from across the consortium. The summit, which was student-run and co-sponsored by the Claremont University Consortium Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC), aimed to facilitate conversations around disability identity and advocacy.

Melissa Rey PO ’16, one of the coordinators of the event, wrote in an email to TSL, “my idea to create the event came out of my experiences as a LD (learning disabled) student. I often felt marginalized, and I suspected that other 5C students with disabilities did, too.”

The coordinators of the event, a team comprised of students from across the 5Cs, began planning the summit last fall. Regarding the purpose of the summit, Rey wrote, “First, I wanted to bring the Claremont College disabled community together in a forum where we could share our experiences and our concerns. Second, I wanted to bring in experts who could provide context for our issues and help us with advocacy.”

The morning began with a welcome session, after which the group was divided into several breakout sessions of approximately 15 people each.

Professor Jih-Fei Cheng, assistant professor of feminist studies, gender, and sexuality at Scripps College, was asked by students to be one of the facilitators for the summit. Cheng, who wrote in an email to TSL that she is interested in “considering how the framing of [disability] does or does not address systemic racism and the enforced norms of heterosexuality, patriarchy, and gender,” co-led discussion seminars on “People of Color and Disabilities” and “Decolonizing and Deconstructing Disability Perspectives.”

Other issues addressed during the morning and early afternoon discussion sessions included “Disability as an Identity,” “Accommodations and Legal Rights,” and the “Intersectionality of Disabilities and Mental Health.” Facilitators included Mary Paster, associate professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Pomona College, Tammy Green, director of the SDRC, Kimberly Drake, associate professor of writing at Scripps, and Nirmala Everelles, professor of social and cultural studies in education from the University of Alabama.

Many of the discussion groups focused on what it means to identify as disabled as well as the varied experiences of disabled people as they relate to other facets of their identity. Students within each of the discussion sections shared their own experiences and raised questions about the discussion topics.

“I really got a lot from the 'Disability as an Identity' talk,” Abby Haupt SC ’19, one of the students who attended the event, said. “We talked about the intersectionality between disability and race, class, gender, and queer identities.”

The afternoon culminated in a presentation by the keynote speaker, Everelles, whose research interests include disability studies, critical race theory, transnational feminism, and the sociology of education, gave a lecture entitled “From Flint to Ferguson and Beyond: Reading Disability at the Intersections.”

The Argue Auditorium hosted several dozen audience members, who listened and occasionally hummed in approval as Everelles spoke about the ongoing pathologization of disabled bodies, arguing that disability is not purely a medical condition but also a social and political position of difference like race, gender, or class.

Tracing the greater narrative that emerged through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the death of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as that which emerged through the international Ebola epidemic, Everelles argued that the current attitude towards disability is based on a medical model of “cure” rather than a political model of “care.”

Everelles said that a system based on the cure mentality attempts to prevent the proliferation of disability, ignoring those who become disabled through violence and are compelled to live in deplorable social conditions. A system focused on care, on the other hand, would seek to understand the condition of “disability” itself, dismantle the way that the system perpetrates the cycle of disability through its pathologization of disabled bodies, and care for those in need in the context of their individual situations.

Cheng put it this way: “Do we want disabilities to be ‘accommodated’—which creates disabilities as individualized exceptions to the norm that serve middle-class interests—or do we want to challenge the norms produced by able-ism?”

Afterwards, the audience was invited to pose questions to the speakers. Outside, tables from 5C organizations such as the SDRC, the Mental Health Alliance, and individuals representing each college lined the hallways of Millikan. Students were welcome to peruse through pamphlets on the tables, pick up flyers, and talk to representatives about accommodations and further resources.

Rey called the event “very successful” but believes that there is more work to be done in the way of disability advocacy at the 5Cs.

“We plan to make the Disability Summit an annual event,” she wrote. “This was the beginning of an ongoing conversation about disability and its intersectionality with marginalized identities. We need to continue the dialogue in order to strengthen this community and to develop a forum to address its concerns.”

Cheng voiced similar sentiments and commented on the complexity and importance of discussing disability outside of the realm of middle-upper class interests in the global north.

“I was extremely heartened by the leadership and participation of students and my opportunities to work with Dr. Erevelles and Dr. Drake,” he wrote. “However, as we continue to consider if/how we should institutionalize disability studies and how to increase access for people with a range of experiences that fall outside ‘the norm’, we must remain attentive to how those discussions are divorced from the work already being done to address institutionalized barriers for underrepresented people of color, namely black, indigenous, and Latinx peoples.”

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