Theory, citizenship and the body

Disabilities studies may be the next academic frontier.

This rapidly emerging field is inherently interdisciplinary and touches on ideas as wide-ranging as the boundaries of freedom, differences between chronic illness and disabilities and—at a basic level—what it means to be a “typical” human being.

“There is a growing interest in the field of disability studies as an area of scholarship and research, and in the past few years it [has] attracted scholars in many disciplines—history, English, ethics, philosophy, sociology and many others, as well as professional fields from education to business to engineering,” says Sigal Ben-Porath, assistant professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

A conference scheduled for March 31 through April 1 at Penn will bring together scholars from various fields to discuss disability and citizenship in U.S. history, disability and sexuality and new directions in the theoretical field. “Civil Disabilities: Theory, Citizenship and the Body” runs from 4 to 9:30 p.m. on March 31 and from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on April 1. Talks will be held at the Silverstein Forum in Stiteler Hall; film screenings will be held at the LGBT Center.

“We are specifically interested in this conference in theoretical questions of the meaning of disability, its implications for membership, personhood and citizenship,” says Nancy Hirschmann, the Jean R. Brownlee Endowed Term Professor in political science and one of the conference organizers. “This conference is not about ways to make Penn more accessible, though that is an important issue; we are not about disability activism here, but disability scholarship.”

The idea began at a Penn Humanities Forum faculty event, when Hirschmann and Beth Linker, assistant professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, agreed that a conference would be an opportunity to bring together Penn scholars from different departments who are working on these issues. Since Penn is so large and diverse, scholars may not know everyone who is wrestling with similar topics. The conference is an opportunity for people to connect and interact.

“This conference brings together leading scholars from many disciplines, and aims to do two things at once—to sharpen our understanding of disability and its experiences, and to expand our views on citizenship through the lens of the human mind and body in their multiple forms,” says Linker.

Organizers of the conference explain that some scholars look at disabilities through a medical framework, in which disabilities are treated like a medical problem. In disabilities studies, however, the social model tends to dominate, which states that it’s not the disability that needs to be cured, but rather able-ism. This conference, says Hirschmann, can help illuminate what the medical model can offer the social, and vice versa.

Conference speakers include Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of women’s studies at Emory University, and Tobin Siebers, professor of literary and cultural criticism at the University of Michigan, discussing “New Directions in Disability Theory.” Penn scholars, including Anita Allen, professor of law and professor of philosophy; Rogers Smith, professor of political science; and Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics, will also be speaking and moderating discussions.

The organizers hope that scholars, students and others interested in disabilities studies will continue to come together after the conference as a consortium or working group. “We’re taking this opportunity to draw people out, to bring people together and then have a conversation ... in how Penn can take part in some of the exciting work in the area of disability studies,” says Ben-Porath.

The conference, made possible by a Mellon Cross-Cultural Contacts Conference grant and the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, is free and open to the public. For more information, including a complete line-up of speakers, go to:

Originally published on March 24, 2011