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Thursday, November 7, 2013

An Interview With Dr. Steven Brown

Dr. Steven Brown, Professor at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
You mentioned in your book Surprised to Be Standing that being diagnosed with Gaucher’s Disease and realizing your physical limitation when you were a child made you feel that your life changed forever. Please share with us some life changing events that followed?  
This is a bit difficult to answer in short form, since I have already written a lot about my life in 2 books and in other publications. However, here are 2:

1.      When I first stood in front of a classroom as a Teaching Assistant in the mid-1970s, I realized that students were waiting for me to take the lead. And I began to do just that. Later, I realized this was the beginning of ending an intense shyness and learning to put myself “out there” in many different situations.

2.      In 1982, a year after earning my doctorate, I was hired, over the phone to write a history of a private company in Oklahoma. When my contact learned I used crutches, the conversation changed. Eventually I was not hired and I was told that they did not think someone who used crutches could do the research and write a book. As I have often written about this situation, I became “radicalized overnight” as a disability advocate. And thus began my journey working in disability rights organizations, which has led to many other amazing experiences and opportunities. 

How far are we in terms of creating a disability mythology? 

I talked and wrote about “disability mythology” in the early 1990s. For me, this was a way to get people thinking about “disability culture.” So my response to this question would more accurately be where are we in the evolution of Disability Culture. And for that, there could be many responses. 

Here’s one:

When I, and a few others, began talking about Disability Culture in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was frequently an argument about whether such a culture existed. But now you can find the phrase “Disability Culture” in books, conference titles and programs; journal articles; academic courses; organizations; and many other places. You can also enter the search term, “disability culture” and receive thousands to millions of returns, depending on the day. So, we have come a long way in a relatively short time. And it continues to evolve, which is, for me, the most exciting part.

Would you like to revise your definition of Disability Culture* in a 1996 issue of Mainstream Magazine? Please explain.

*People with disabilities have forged a group identity. We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience. We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives and our culture, infused from our experience of disability. Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities. We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are: we are people with disabilities.

I have revisited this definition many times over the years and asked other people about it as well. I have wondered at times about revising it, but it still seems to work well, so no I don’t see a need to revise it. I do, however, use other definitions from other people as well, when I discuss the concept and definition of disability culture. For more on definitions, and links to other resources, please see:

How do you like teaching online course “Disability and Culture: From Homer to Hip Hop?” and what have you learned from your students?

I love it. “Disability History and Culture: From Homer to Hip” is a course I created, so I’m quite attached to it. When it began, about 2-3 years ago, it was somewhat difficult to find resources for student assignments. But in the short time that I’ve been teaching it, resources have expanded widely and now there is more than can be used in a semester. 

From my students, I learn many things. Among them are: how their lives have impacted what they take away and contribute to the course; how their cultural backgrounds contribute to the way they participate in discussions; that they come up with questions I would not think about asking; and how many students still know so very little about disability and disability issues—but have a great desire to know and wonder why they haven’t been previously exposed to it, especially in primary and secondary schools.

I have also learned from students, as well as many others, about a variety or resources that are available and that continue to be created.

What do you love the most about your job?

Teaching; working with great colleagues and being encouraged to be innovative; and making a difference in people’s lives.

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