Rosemarie Garland-Thomson ’93 Ph.D. explores disability in culture and literature
When Rosemarie Garland-Thomson ’93 Ph.D. first came to Brandeis, she had a variety of identities. Mother, wife and English teacher were among them. Yet she avoided thinking of herself as disabled, despite being born with a congenital difference. One of Garland-Thomson’s arms is shorter than the other, and she has a total of six fingers.
Growing up, Garland-Thomson didn’t know any other disabled people. “I was really isolated as a disabled person and really didn’t identify that way. In fact I tried to kind of avoid the subject because I was just trying to get on with life like anybody else,” Garland-Thomson said in an interview with the Justice. After high school, she attended the University of Nevada in Reno, where she studied English. In the late 1980s, she moved to Massachusetts with her husband and three small children, the youngest of whom was only three years old. She decided to pursue a Ph.D. in English and enrolled at Brandeis University. “I went to Brandeis because it worked the best for me. When I got there I found that it was a very welcoming and flexible environment. I loved every second that I was there,” she said.
As she worked towards her Ph.D. in English, Garland-Thomson began to think more about the representation of disability in culture, literature and art. It was a field of research that didn’t really exist at the time. Yet with the support of her advisor, the late Michael Gilmore, Garland-Thomson began to do the work herself. She was inspired by her previous studies of the women’s movement. She explained, “These new forms of knowledge that came forward as academic feminism, and as the women’s movement in general, made me understand that something similar could be done about people with disabilities and the lives of people with disabilities.”
However, Garland-Thomson was largely isolated in her studies at Brandeis. So, she attended conferences, submitted papers and joined professional organizations to meet others working in the field of disability studies. Yet, as it turned out, Irving Zola, one of the founders of the Society for Disability Studies, was conducting research across the street from Garland-Thomson. Zola worked in the Brandeis Sociology department, where he had a focus on disability studies. He invited Garland-Thomson to a national conference where she was able to learn more about the field of disability studies and the work that was already being done.
“But [the field] had very little contribution from the humanities. So the work that I took on then was to gather colleagues in the humanities and to work within the structures of disability studies as they existed at that time. And to try to encourage, to try and curate a disability studies that brought humanities perspectives, into what was imagined as the interdisciplinary inquiry, into disability and how it operates in the world,” she explained.
Garland-Thomson has since published several books, including “Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature” and “Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum.”
This past August, Garland-Thomson was asked to write an opinion piece for the New York Times. The article, entitled “Becoming Disabled,” is the first in a series on disability by the newspaper. In the article, Garland-Thomson looks at disability identity and the various challenges disability activism movements face.
“Disability is generally still thought of not as a political identity or an occasion for requesting accommodation and services, but rather as a form of abnormality or medical condition that is to be treated medically and is often is quite stigmatized,” she said. This, she believes, is partially the reason why a disability pride movement, similar to those seen in the LGBTQ, African-American and feminist communities, has yet to take hold in the mainstream media. People with disabilities comprise the largest minority group, and this too presents its own challenges. “We don’t have a real coherent sense of what it means to have a disability identity,” Garland-Thomson explained.
Currently in the United States, federal laws define someone having a disability as “any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities…” With such a broad definition, it is difficult for many to grasp or be able to identify what it truly means to be a disabled person. But, according to Garland-Thomson, this is starting to change.
“When [disabled] people are coming forward … being a person with a disability may not seem as dire — as objectionable — as it has in the past. And more people are beginning to understand that if they have a disability, that identifying as disabled, that requesting accommodations, that cultivating pride and culture may benefit us rather than stigmatize us. I think that’s changing as disability inclusion increases everywhere,” she said.
Already the disability activism movement, which first gained traction in the 1970s, has helped to pass anti-discrimination laws. Garland-Thomson believes that legislation like this is largely responsible for the development of new technology to aid those with disabilities. But there is still progress to be made.
Garland-Thomson hopes that those who read her article will begin to recognize that “People with disabilities are everywhere. They are who we are as humans. And that there is a new and welcoming political, social, material and cultural environment for people with disabilities. We are, as a culture, and as individuals, better off trying to accommodate disability, [and recognizing] it and even honor[ing] it in our lives than we are trying to eliminate it.”