Faculty and student panelists discussed the need for a different conceptual approach to disabilities at a conference in McShain Lounge on Thursday.

The conference, Accessing Difference: New Politics and Pedagogies of Disability, focused on how the study of disabilities opens up opportunities for new ways of seeing the world rather than limiting them. The conference came as the School of Continuing Studies plans to introduce a new masters program in interdisciplinary disability studies in September 2010.

“Disability studies has always incited other ways to be,” said Robert McRuer, an English professor at The George Washington University and the presenter of the closing keynote.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Academic Resource Center, the Georgetown chapter of Best Buddies, Campus Ministry, the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, The Corp, the LGBTQ Resource Center, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs and the Women’s Center, among others.

“Each keynote speaker and panelist approached disability from his or her own field of expertise, resulting in a truly campus-wide discussion, which I think is demonstrative of the fact that, like all matters of diversity, we are all touched, in one way or another, by the issues of disability and difference,” said Alyssa Ladd (COL ’10), president of Best Buddies.

Dirksen Bauman, professor of American Sign Language and deaf studies and coordinator for bilingual teaching and learning at Gallaudet University, discussed problems with viewing deafness as a “loss” in his keynote address.

Bauman said he only understood his identity as a “hearing” person when he began working with deaf people. He asked the audience to view deafness not as a loss but as a “gain” that ultimately contributes to linguistic diversity and what he termed the “hearing” ways of knowing.

“Deaf gain is humanity’s gain,” he said. “The brain does not discriminate between visual and audio input, but society does.”

Today, 54 million Americans live with some form of disability, according to Shiva Subbaraman, of the LGBTQ Resource Center.

“Disability – visible/invisible – affects all of us, and we are present in every other demographic,” Subbaraman said in an e-mail. “We are white, black, Asian, Latino/a, queer, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, straight, young and old.”

English professor Libbie Rifkin said she left the conference feeling that it is time for people with disabilities and their allies to work to create change both on campus and off.

“The conference clarified the challenges that face us, but galvanized a new energy, I think, in people who might not have recognized the role we can play in raising awareness, changing the curriculum and the environment in general on campus,” Rifkin said.

Subbaraman said she believed that the event was very successful.

“The fact that so many different groups co-sponsored this event and that McShain was filled to capacity for much of the day points to the tremendous groundswell that is now in place at the Hilltop,” Subbaraman said. “The students were fabulous in their leadership and advocacy, and it is my hope that they will move us forward in this conversation.”

Panelists for the event included Nolana Yip, an English professor; Steven Sabat, a psychology professor; Sue Lorenson, an associate dean in the College and a linguistics professor; Karen Stohr, a philosophy professor; Joan Riley, a professor in the nursing school and faculty adviser for Best Buddies; and LeRoy Walters, a philosophy professor.

*Caitlin Mac Neal contributed to this report.*”

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