Four Burning Questions with Kathryn Church, Director of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University

Posted on Friday, March 15, 2013

Kathryn Church, Director of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University, will deliver the annual Rathlyn lecture on Disability Studies on March 20. / Photo courtesy Kathryn Church

Dr. Kathryn Church is Associate Professor and Director of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University. For the past decade, she has been part of key initiatives that have brought the School’s “vision, passion, action” message to life across the university and in the public eye. As part of McGill’s second annual Disability Week, Church will be  giving the annual endowed Rathlyn lecture on Disability Studies entitled Accessible and Mad Positive in the Academy on Wednesday, March 20, from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. in the Bronfman Building, Room 423. For more information, including the complete schedule for Disability Week, click here.

As Director of a Disability Studies program at Ryerson, what has been the best highlight and your biggest challenge in running the program?

This year is my second as director of the School although I have been here since 2002. I have many personal and collegial highlights but what has been most gratifying is the growth and maturation of our program in the context of the proliferation of Disability Studies across Canada and internationally.

Disability Studies at Ryerson started in 1999 with just 25 students – real risk-taking pioneers. At the time, ours was one of just 2-3 programs in Canada. Today, we have more than 700 students working towards their Bachelor of Disability Studies; about 350 registered in each academic year. Our graduates are active in improving the quality of service systems; increasingly, they are moving on to further education in a range of programs at the Masters and Doctoral levels. They are carving new pathways for professional practice, scholarship and public life. My colleagues and I are tremendously proud of them – and excited about the changes they will make in terms of human rights and social justice.

After 13 years, the School’s biggest challenge is to grow in austere times under conditions of funding cuts and the push to entrepreneurialism. We are re-visioning ourselves beyond the part-time program that we are right now, and into a fully-accessible, full-time, four-year degree program that capitalizes on our skills with both on-site and distance learning and teaching. Providing leadership for that process in a changing academic world – I would say that’s my biggest challenge as director.

What does the perspective of Disability Studies bring to the academy and what examples can you give of its impact (on other disciplines)?

If you check the School’s website, right off you will see that our work is “to illuminate the extent to which the lives of disabled people are shaped by patterns of injustice, exclusion, discrimination and the rule of social, cultural and aesthetic ‘norms’.” We don’t so much teach about disability as begin from disability to know more about social and material worlds.

That point would hold true not just for teaching but for research as well. We push back against practices of inquiry that make disabled people the focus of inquiry: by category of body/mind, or by population. Our aspiration is to stand with communities and with social movements in our attempts to know and to change the disadvantage people are compelled to live. It’s a stance against the grain of most conversations, where a focus on individual impairment dominates, but it’s a revealing one to hold. I recall being told by a professor of Early Childhood Studies how grateful she was for Disability Studies at Ryerson; our presence made her own work with children so much easier to do.

So, there are entry points and resonances across disciplines. As a major example, our program built the first exhibit of activist disability history in Canada, and installed it at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Cultural Olympiad of the Vancouver Games, and, in 2014, the Human Rights Museum of Canada. We contributed a missing and suppressed history to that discipline – and to the national fabric.

What does “mad positive” mean and why is it important?

In the context of a rich debate here, perhaps the most useful thing I can say is that the term “mad” is an activist interruption in the discourse of “mental illness.” It makes you stop and say “What??” And in that space of sudden confusion, there is a chance we could change the subject. So, one thing the word does is create an opening into “something otherwise” as part of a long struggle to reclaim words and the right to self-identify.

To claim “madness” is to invoke a strand of human history that pre-dates psychiatric dominance. For 30 years, activists in Canada have used language to unsettle and push back against established ways of thinking about unusual states of mind. When I first encountered the movement, the words in play included “former mental patients,” “psychiatric ex-inmates,” and the “psychiatrized;” later on the terms “consumers” or “users of mental health services,” “psychiatric survivors,” and “consumers/survivors” – to name a few.

The discursive terrain is increasingly varied and complex. In a gathering recently, one person identified as a crazy; one sometimes calls herself a lunatic or a lunachick; another says she is mad-identified; and several others identify as psychiatric survivors. No single term encompasses everyone – although the word “mad” comes close (for now).

How is the academy doing when it comes to being accessible and mad positive?

In both instances I suspect the answer is “not nearly as well as we need to be.”

In Ontario, school boards, colleges of applied arts and technology, and universities are required to respond to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and emergent standards in five key areas: customer service, built environments, employment, information and communications, and transportation.

As an organization, Ryerson has an active and comprehensive approach to managing this process. But most instructors have yet to comprehend the revolution in practice that comes with ensuring an accessible classroom from the outset rather than managing individual accommodations as they appear. How many of us proactively caption videos, describe images or ensure that screen-readers can access our on-line materials? We are only beginning to see/feel the sea change that accessibility could make in academic culture.

Being mad positive is even more nascent. Universities are attempting a progressive approach to what is being portrayed as a mental health crisis among students – although they are also reinforcing a questionable linkage between violence and “mental illness.” But very few universities see their task as taking up problems of exclusion and discrimination in education (over providing counseling, for example) or making classrooms and campuses safe for mad-identified students.

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Category: Four Burning Questions

One Response to Four Burning Questions with Kathryn Church, Director of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University

  1. marty says:

    The universal declaration of human rights.
    Canadian charter, section 15
    Human Rights
    UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

    How much longer until we’re included in schools and workplaces like Ryerson – without barriers?

    How much longer until the average pwd does not live in poverty?

    How much longer until… until… until.

    We have enough laws, treaties, acts and legislation to choke a horse.

    I am fed up to the teeth with studies, proposals, laws, workshops, town halls, posters and good intentions.

    Until Canadians with disabilities can REALIZE OUR RIGHTS, this is all just more hot air.

    We need a revolution.

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