Cas Sweeney ‘19 Associate Editor
Smith’s Disability Alliance kicked off their Disability Visibility Week on April 17 with a lecture by Margaret Price Ph.D, an author and disability studies professor at Ohio State University. She spoke about her new book, “Toward a Theory of Crip Spacetime.” The event was co-sponsored by American Studies Disability and the Smith Office of Disability Services.
The talk was broken up into three categories. First, Price discussed “the crisis of precarity within disability studies.” Second, she spoke about the interviews she conducted with disabled faculty for her upcoming book. Third, she analyzed the steps that the field of disability studies could take to implement the theory of “Crip Spacetime” that she proposed during the talk and within her book. Specifically, she addressed “How [people] might change [their] everyday practices in ways to help alleviate the material harms experienced by those in precarious positions.”
“The crisis of precarity within disability studies” refers to the growing power and access imbalance in the field of disability studies. This includes the imbalance between white people and people of color, those who are paid by the university and those who rely on government benefits, those who are tenured and those who are not and those who are “functional” enough to hold jobs and those who aren’t. Price pointed out that the field of disability studies has not done enough to address those imbalances.
One of the specific inequities she focused on was the difference between disabilities that fit into the current model of accommodation in academia and those that do not. Price described some disabilities as generally accommodatable, such as “chemical sensitivity, dementia, various cognitive impairments, chronic illnesses, and health disparities linked to environment, race, class and gender.”
Accommodations for disabilities often do not meet the standards necessary to be useful because they cannot address interpersonal stigma, for example a coworker’s disapproval or a negative connotation barring a person from promotion.
Other problems arise from the fact that the model of accommodations currently assumes that all disabilities are constant and predictable. Price pointed out that, “Some disabilities can be made to appear predictable enough in order to specify ‘needs,’” while others are different enough day to day that a disabled person cannot ask for a specific accommodation days, weeks or even months in advance, as university accommodations often require a person to do.
To look at how disabilities change from moment to moment, Price proposed the theory of “Crip Spacetime.” She defined “spacetime” as the intersection between the space and time an individual inhabits. Though people often exist in a very similar space and time to each other, the spacetime of a person is unique. Price emphasized the importance of understanding the differences in spacetimes since they are “often a matter of violent inequity, even of life or death.”
Because spacetime is constantly in flux, a person’s disability is as well. For example, on a day where there are no bright lights or strong smells, a person who has migraines will have a different manifestation of their disability than on a day where they are exposed to many migraine triggers.
Price is currently conducting interviews with faculty at universities, including teaching staff and non-tenure-track faculty. The interviews and analysis are not yet complete, but Price described two common themes she has encountered so far, “ambient uncertainty” and “bodymind events.”
Price defined “ambient uncertainty” as “the sense of not know what’s at stake when disclosing disability.” Ambient uncertainty often arises when disability and accommodation are not addressed, except in insults, especially from other faculty referring to students that they feel are “asking for too much” or faking.
The administration usually does not make clear what the consequences are for asking for accommodations. Often the consequences are not discrete or direct cause and effect. If one asks for accommodations for a disability, there is not the specific effect that the person will not get promoted. Rather, the consequences are more ambiguous and unpredictable, but can sometimes lead to the same outcomes.
This creates much more work for the disabled faculty than there should be. It adds the emotional labor of guesswork and the physical labor of finding resources that are hidden or even outright denied by the administration.
Another aspect of unpredictability relating to disability is points in time that Price labeled “bodymind events.” Bodymind events are “the sudden emergence of a debilitating breakdown or loss of capacity,” and though they are connected to what she called bodymind, i.e. the intersection between a person’s body and mind, bodymind events take place within spacetime. Some examples of bodymind events are panic attacks, encountering an unexpected allergen, smell or chemical, suddenly realizing an interpreter is not doing their job correctly or abruptly hitting a bump and falling over.
Though such events relate to one’s bodymind, Price said, “They arise from the particular conditions of space and time that contribute to the emergent meaning of a situation.” Often, they are very shocking or upsetting events that, although they may occur with differing frequency, are unpredictable and sometimes unavoidable.
Price developed the theory of crip spacetime to address the “radical inequality of the different spacetimes we inhabit.” The rigidity of current accommodation models does not properly address the fluidity of disability and spacetime.
One method of addressing this issue that Price did not recommend is attempting to “fix” inaccessible space by making them more predictable, as that plays into the binary constructed around predictability versus unpredictability which is used to widen power imbalances as mentioned at the beginning of the talk.
Instead, Price suggested that though she does not have a concrete solution to close the gap in privilege, the field of disability studies and academia must change how they view spacetime. If we make an effort to understand how changes in spacetimes affect disability, we can begin to break down the barriers between treatment of abled people, disabled people who can perform predictability and consistency well enough to pass and disabled people who cannot.
The finer details of how to move forward with this approach are difficult to determine, but collectively committing to act with compassion and a willingness to help without policing and doubting a disabled person’s needs can go a long way.
More information about Price’s upcoming book and a complete transcript of the lecture can be found on her website at margaretprice.wordpress.com/presentations.