Barnard College Hosts Annual Scholar and Feminist Conference on Disability
The Barnard College Center for Research on Women held its annual Scholar and Feminist Conference this February, with a focus on disability through a feminist lens.
Barnard student and Center employee Zai Gilles explained how the department aims to combine feminism with other issues.
“The Center’s goal is really to attack other social justice issues through the feminist perspective,” Gilles said. Her co-worker and fellow Barnard student Narine Bournoutian added that this year’s marriage of feminism, art and disability was especially unique.
Approximately 200 students, teachers and activists attended the event, which focused particularly on women with disabilities in the art world.
Carrie Sandahl, an associate professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois in Chicago, gave a brief presentation during the event’s Plenary Panel, highlighting some of the limits of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Currently, the Act only requires that schools and other public institutions make “reasonable modifications” in order to accommodate persons with disabilities. Sandahl argued that this clause of the Act allows discrimination to continue, noting that the legal “language of inclusion intentionally excludes.” As an example, she discussed her experiences with her son, who suffers from multiple mental health disorders and has struggled to find a school that meets his needs.
“The entire educational system would have to change to reasonably accommodate him,” Sandhal said.
Sandhal encouraged her audience to challenge the status quo of disability rights and norms nationally, and hoped that activists’ work could “make new ways of being together possible”.
The conference also featured a performance by the Heidi Lafsky Dance Company titled “The GIMP Project,” as well as discussions on the challenges faced by disabled female artists.
One artist, wheelchair dancer Alice Sheppard, spoke about her experiences performing with the AXIS Dance Company as part of the morning Plenary Panel. Reading aloud from a recent review of one of her performances, Sheppard lamented the fact that one particular critic was too distracted by the dancers’ disabilities to truly appreciate their art. She hoped that members of her audiences in the future would instead be able to “forget what isn’t here and focus on what is.”
Sheppard said she uses dance as a way to acknowledge “all of my asses,” referring to both her physical rear end as well as the seat of the wheelchair it sits in. When she performed a brief dance sequence for the conference, it seemed that her audience had gotten the message. As Sheppard twirled around in her wheelchair, demonstrating an incredible amount of upper body strength as she pushed herself up from the floor and around, her performance was met with cheers of “you go girl!” and gasps from a totally captivated audience. #