Intersectionality Network

Disability & Race: Intersections Inadequately Explored in Disability Studies Courses

This blog may leave you satisfied, inspired, disappointed, or annoyed. Writing as a disabled student and woman of colour, I am determined to encourage people to consider what is at stake when we talk about intersectionality in Disability Studies, more specifically the intersection of race and disability. I often ask myself, “What does Disability Studies as a discipline mean to us in today’s society? What do Disability Studies courses teach us, and on what topics do they stay silent? When do we talk about race and disability, if ever? Is it particularly noteworthy that I am a disabled woman of colour, with an undergraduate degree in Disability Studies? And that I am also currently in the process of completing a Master in Disability Studies?” Recently, I read a blogpost on what students hope to gain from undertaking Disability Studies courses. Dr Megan Conway, based in the Center on Disability Studies in Honolulu (Hawaii, USA) remarked that students should expect to secure a high-level professional job as a direct result of their course specialties. “ background in Disability Studies strengthens your resume,” proclaims Conway, “because it shows that you have people skills above and beyond that of the typical employee”. Yet, I question whether Conway’s lofty statement can be validated in the real world.

We would all like to think that Disability Studies courses, and the lecturers that teach on them, are offering students “skill above and beyond the typical” – myself included. However, I find it challenging to take Conway’s statement as fully truthful. I hold reservations as to the utility of the skills students are being taught in Disability Studies courses. My doubts stem directly from my own experiences as an undergraduate and postgraduate student in Disability Studies courses.

Based upon my experiences as a student, I fear that Disability Studies courses simply do not do what they should set out to accomplish. The late Chris Bell emphasised the limits of contemporary Disability Studies, asserting that “White Disability Studies” was a name more reflective of the focus of the discipline. I strongly agree with Bell’s analyses, which he sets out at length in his book Blackness and Disability Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Certainly, when I consider my own lived experiences, I see all too clearly where Bell was coming from.

Looking back on my undergraduate studies, I can report that we covered race and disability extensively on my course. Mind you, my then-lecturer had disabled family members for whom he cared and advocated for. Additionally, he was a man of colour. When I look back, I realise that through these lectures I began to understand my own lived experiences of intersectionality as a disabled woman of colour. I wish the same could be reported about my present Master’s course, but this is sadly not the case.

In one lecture, the lecturer spent 6 minutes covering the topic of race and disability. I still think this was the quickest 6 minutes of my life! In the lecture, we were asked to read a very small paragraph of 5 lines of text. After this, we were told that the lady we read about had one other characteristic: “she was not just disabled, she was also an ethnic minority”. I recall thinking, “well that was a very inadequate session”. I tried to open a discussion with my lecturer and my peers to develop the issues we had covered so briefly. After all, this was my area of interest, and coincides with my own lived experiences. I could not wait to speak more in-depth about disability, race, and gender, or – put more broadly – intersectionality and multiple oppressions. However, my expectations of being able to have a productive discussion were not met. The lecturer cut me off abruptly, suggesting that an alternative talk should take place outside of the class with my peers as “time was running out”. However, no such conversations occurred. My peers were more interested in buying cheap burritos for lunch – the local shop offered student discount – than talking about the “difficult” topic(s) of race and disability.

Whenever possible, I tried to initiate discussions about race and disability. I continuously broached the topic with peers and also with academics, including visiting lecturers and other professionals that taught on the course. Astonishingly, it appeared that – in my institution at least – nobody working in the field of disability, in Disability Studies, or working in services outside of my institution had contact with, or was interested in the concerns of, disabled people of colour in their professional capacity. I recall one lecturer’s excuse of not wanting to enter into a discussion on disability and race: he claimed not to have “knowledge of that area”. This got me thinking: what exactly are students being taught in Disability Studies courses? Are they being taught that all disabled people are white, straight, male and middle class? On reflection, the lack of tolerance shown towards me in lectures may have been because I continue to challenge the course leaders and my fellow students to think inclusively. So far, I have observed that the preferred method of thinking in and teaching of Disability Studies is significantly narrow in scope. Nevertheless, I will continue in my efforts to implement a key tenet of Bells’ thinking in my studies, and in my own work: we must approach Disability Studies with “blackness and disability” in mind.

I have become more and more concerned that disabled people of colour in Ireland are treated as non-entities and are denied access to relevant services, or are liable to being disadvantaged when they try to access services. This is a direct result of the fact that the professionals they are engaging with, just like the lecturers and professionals teaching on my Master’s course, may have no basic understanding of, or direct link to, race and disability, and how marginalisation in both spheres may intertwine to impact lives negatively. This leads me to another significant point: after I tried to initiate discussions on race and disability, students on my Master’s course rolled their eyes at me because of the questions I raised, with several giving me what I can only describe as dirty looks. I still question to this day, why did they give me those looks? Was it because I was seen to be a trouble-maker? Did they not wish to hear that they would need to consider disabled people of colour in their own practice? Or was it the case that they recognised the course that they had paid to study on was indeed disabling in some way or another? It must not be the latter, after all Disability Studies courses could never be discriminatory or involve oppressive attitudes and behaviours. Of course, I say this with huge sarcasm, sadly. Which leads me to my final point: unfortunately, the reality is that Disability Studies courses are far from inclusive at present, as study of the intersection of disability and race is increasingly excluded from the curriculum.