In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Shifting Students’ Imaginings of Disability
  • Kathryn Linn Geurts (bio) and Jessica Hansen (bio)

The artwork in this essay was produced by members of a 2013 undergraduate course, Intergroup Dialogue on Disability, in which Kathryn Linn Geurts was an instructor and Jessica Hansen was a student. These visual responses, such as “Freakshow” (figure 1), reflect reactions to several readings and showcase the critical learning objectives and goals of the course. Inherently interdisciplinary, the class was offered through the Conflict Studies program and was cross-listed with Social Justice, Anthropology, and Public Health Sciences at Hamline University, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Hamline is a private institution with a small but growing commuter population; it attracts students who grew up primarily in the Midwest, and is somewhat selective. With no Disability Studies program at Hamline, this mid-level course met Conflict Studies program requirements and also fulfilled “Cultural Breadth” requirements all students must meet to earn an undergraduate degree. The aim was to teach students to communicate through dialog across social, cultural, and power differences. Through sustained and meaningful cross-group contact and relations, the course encourages students to explore both conflict and common ground, particularly around issues related to ableism. It challenges students to examine their assumptions and their political and social understandings of disability as they engage in reflective conversations and inquiry.

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Figure 1.

In honor of Eli Clare’s chapter on the history of “freaks,” by an anonymous student.

Early in the semester, Jessica Hansen created this assemblage and titled it “Power and Control” (figure 2). Her explanation of her work’s origin and meanings reflects the pedagogical approach of the class:

This collage was a fairly spontaneous reaction to the massive amount of new concepts and questions that arose from our course discussions and readings (especially Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride). I sat down with a huge pile of magazines, and cut out every word or image which connected with the things we had been learning. I took note of the framing of people with disabilities as superheroes and success stories in the media, and remembered our discussions of how framing disability and difference as something to “overcome” takes society off the hook for making our world livable for everyone, regardless of differences in ability. I feel that I came away with a condensed experience of reading popular magazines—highlighting how many messages we receive (consciously or not) from these forms of media. After experiencing this course, I will always think twice about popular narratives of ability and difference. [End Page 183]

To ensure that the group of students in the class would have diverse social identities, we required instructor permission to register. Sixteen individuals enrolled in the course. When people introduced themselves in the first class meeting, one individual requested that everyone note their preferred pronouns as well as their name. A few students displayed surprise and mild confusion at the request, which provided a hint of the level of students’ awareness (or lack thereof) of identity issues. Some individuals began the class not knowing the meaning of terms such as cisgender, transgender, or intersectionality. In addition to various prose writing assignments, we required poetry, skits, drawings, collages, paintings, and a video. We believed that this would democratize the classroom, allowing different skills and talents to emerge and enabling the group to see each individual’s strengths. Academic writing, we have found, is not always the best means for allowing our college students to demonstrate how their understandings have shifted or moved as a result of exposure to learning materials. During the tenth week of class students produced “testimonials” by explaining how they came to be the person they are today by taking into account their dis/ability identity along with one other identity (race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social class, etc.). Students made private YouTube videos of their testimonials and we viewed them one after another during two separate three-hour class sessions. These powerful accounts represented a range of experiences. Not only did the group embody gender, sexual, racial, ethnic, and economic diversity, but dis/abilities also ran the gamut. The class included individuals and families dealing with...


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pp. 183-188
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