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The 2020 CALS (Virtual) Symposium: Disability’s Environments

By Eunice Toh, the CALS Graduate Research Assistant. A recap of the 2020 CALS Symposium held on September 14 over Zoom.

Bodies and spaces; disabilities and environments: especially prescient in light of COVID-19, these themes inspired this year’s CALS Spring Symposium, “Disability’s Environments.” With the ongoing pandemic disrupting in-person events across the country, the symposium organizing committee had to postpone the event, originally scheduled for March, to the fall semester. The committee’s year-long organizing and planning process achieved fruition on September 14 when the symposium was held virtually via Zoom. Five nationally recognized scholars joined six Penn State faculty in meditating on the relationship between disability and its “structured” and “natural” environments. 

In his introductory remarks, Christopher Castiglia (Penn State University), head of the organizing committee, opened the program by previewing two provisional definitions of “disability’s environments” guiding the symposium’s organizing structure. Attention to disability’s “structured environments,” Castiglia explained, invited panelists to consider accessibility issues and the ways institutions such as asylums, schools, and workplaces have historically attached multiple meanings to disability. Regarding disability’s “natural environments,” Castiglia suggested that the impact of toxicity and climate change on bodies, as well as the “multispecies relationships that can arise around disability,” were some of the topics that invited panelists would reflect on during their presentations. Despite these two frameworks structuring the symposium’s talks, however, connections between disability’s built and natural environments were made across the day. One concerted point of inquiry was the relationship between disability and racialization. Kathleen Collins (Penn State University), the first speaker of the day, employed a Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit) framework to comment on the synergistic workings of ableism and racism as they manifest in classroom settings. Seating charts and separate classrooms are determined by race and language, she argued, with such boundary work determining who is excluded or included. Scaling out from the classroom, Anita Mannur (Miami University) considered the role of large corporations alongside environmental disasters. Why are some instances of corporate malfeasance remembered more than others, she questioned? By drawing crucial links between disability and the concept of debility, Mannur highlighted the need for careful attention to the acts of corporate neglect that disproportionately affect the poor and people of color.

Another theme that resounded across sessions was disability’s architectures. Taking a diachronic approach, Greg Eghigian (Penn State University) looked at the role of structured environments in treating madness in the Western world. In surveying the “long durée” of medical interventions dealing with mental illness, dating back from ancient Rome to the late twentieth century, he demonstrated how asylums generally moved from a model of control to one of collaboration. Picking up on Eghigian’s comments, Kim Hall (Appalachian State University) focused on the cultivation of ableism and nursing home gardens. Instead of being a space that allows for individuated experience, such environments, she argued, are imbued with a carceral logic where people with disabilities are deemed unwanted.  

A third thread tying together various presentations across the day’s four roundtable sessions was the theme of disability and dependence or interdependence. These panelists also cohered with their formal choices to center their talks on literary texts and authors. Benjamin Reiss (Emory University) spoke about the networks of care and support of three well-known Transcendentalists, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. While Emerson’s famous essay “Self-Reliance” has been read as championing individualism, Reiss maintained that one’s obligation to care for others is a part of self-reliance. Moreover, attention to disability can help us re-evaluate ideas of independence. Building on Reiss’s discussion of nineteenth-century ideals, Christian Haines (Penn State University) linked the values of Transcendentalism with practices of storytelling that intertwined narratives of disability and ecology. Treating Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, Haines considered how disability offers imaginative new modes of being that build on sustainability and exceed them. Adjacent to her fellow panelists’ interests in self-reliance, Maren Linett (Purdue University) considered the concept of dependence in her presentation on H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, which invited participants to consider the categories of animality as they relate to disability. In placing the text’s ideals of evolutionary progress in conversation with Charles Darwin, she questioned the curative imaginary permeating contemporary discussions of future technologies that people with disabilities can depend on.

Symposium organizers and panelists at the wrap-up session: Top Row (L-R): Kim Hall, Andrew Erlandson, Anita Mannur; Second Row (L-R): Susan Squier, Matthew Cella, Benjamin Reiss, Maren Linett; Middle Row (L-R): Michael Bérubé, Kathleen Collins, Janet Lyon, Greg Eghigian, Fourth Row: (L-R): Madeline McCluskey, Rebecca Haddaway, Katie Warczak.
Even as panelists and audience members were making the above connections between presentations throughout the day, rich points of contact could be found within each of the four roundtables as well. The topic of intellectual disability was prominent in the two roundtables focused on “Disability’s Structured Environments.” Janet Lyon (Penn State University) commented on the recent policy change in workplace accommodations due to COVID-19 that now allowed people to work from home, something which people with disabilities have been advocating for for decades. Deliberating on the disparity in accommodations rights, she remarked upon the relationship between universities and intellectual disability, demonstrating how academics had to “perform” disability in order to be verified, and thus be allowed accommodations. Picking up on these themes on “invisible” disabilities, Susan Squier (Penn State University) focused on the graphic novel and its potential for increasing the visibility of characters with intellectual disability. Unlike literary texts, which are more linguistic-centric, visual culture, Squier posited, allows for the expressed cognition of characters with intellectual disabilities through movement and action. 


During the afternoon’s roundtables focused on “Disability’s Natural Environments,” a theme that cropped up across presentations was inclusivity in natural spaces. Matthew Cella (Shippensburg University) presented on the Disability-Rurality Axis, differentiating between Bad Rural (anti-idyll, toxicity, rural life and labor) and Good Rural (therapeutic and curative, the dissolution of the body). In place of these myths, he provocatively offered a paradigm of “counter-ruralities” that might be more inclusive and empowering for individuals with disabilities. Similarly, Michael Bérubé (Penn State University) critiqued the wondrous mode of representing disability in outdoor adventure advertisements. Commenting on the straw man position of a “barrier-free utopia,” he argued that instead of championing universal access to the natural world, reasonable accommodations should be the focus of demands by disability studies activists and academics.

Wrapping up the day’s stellar discussions, four Penn State graduate students who served on the symposium’s organizing committee—Andrew Erlandson, Rebecca Haddaway, Madeline McCluskey, and Katie Warczak—cogently reflected on the talks and offered their key takeaways on the blurring of the terms “disability” and “debility,” the non-normative ways of knowledge production, and the role of communities in moments of crisis, ecological or otherwise. During the final Q&A, moderated by Erlandson, panelists remarked upon the importance of disarticulating “disability” from “debility” as each term arises from distinct epistemologies and geopolitical discourses. At the same time, the speakers also interrogated two of the symposium’s keywords—"structured” and “natural”—reminding one another that the “natural” itself is a “structural” construction. In deliberating about the roles of access and institutions, the discussions from “Disability’s Environments” pointed to the ever-crucial work of meditating on policy changes within and outside of various structures, as well as the key role of American literary and cultural studies in the knowledge production and mediation of disability’s various meanings.

Watch a recording of Disability’s Environments here