Interview with Disabilities Scholar Clare Mullaney

WG: Clare, in spring the University of Pennsylvania will be holding a symposium on the history of the development of disability studies as a field of study in academic institutions. Since you are one of the prime movers of this event, can you talk a bit about how you got involved with it and why you decided upon this particular topic.

CM: Penn's Disability Studies Working Group, which was founded in the fall of 2012, has been looking to plan a conference for awhile now, and due to some generous funding we received this past year, we're able to finally pull it off. The idea behind the conference, which is entitled "Disability Studies: A History," came from the desire to get a better account of the history of the field of disability studies, which hasn't really been written or presented in any formal way. I remember sitting with some disability studies scholars one night following Margaret Price's and Stephanie Kerschbaum's Disability in/an Higher Education Conference in 2013 when we were discussing that there needs to be a better account of the field, from its early activist initiatives in the 1960s and 70s to its development as an academic discipline in the 1980s. The conference, then, strives to fill this gap in disability history by asking speakers to engage with a key question: as disability studies gains a greater institutional foothold, what productive tensions emerge between advocacy, policy, and scholarship?

WG: Can you describe for people who might be interested in attending the conference what they might expect to take place?

CM: The conference will hopefully appeal to people who have had varying levels of engagement with disability studies. In addition to generating conversation among senior scholars in disability studies who are looking back to key moments in the field's development, the event's various panels also promise to provide a primer to DS for people who are new to it. We've broken the conference into two sections: the first will address the field's shift from activism to scholarly or academic work (as well as its many disciplinary commitments both in the social sciences and humanities) and the second will consider how disability interacts with other minority-based fields of study (feminist and queer studies, critical race studies, and Deaf studies).

WG: Would you be able to let us know who some of the main speakers will be? Is there a website that those interested in attending can go to find out time, place and fees involved?

CM: The conference will be held March 30th-31st at the University of Pennsylvania, beginning at 4 p.m. that Thursday and all day on Friday. Registration is free of cost for all participants. Speakers include leading disability studies scholars and activists: Liat Ben-Moshe (University of Toledo), Emily Landau (Concets, Inc.), Sunaura Taylor (New York University) Mara Mills (New York University), David Mitchell (George Washington University), Robert McRuer (George Washington University), Aimi Hamraie (Vanderbilt University), Hentyle Yapp (New York University), Therí Pickens (Bates College), Michele Friedner (University of Chicago), and Michael Bérubé (Pennsylvania State University). More information is available at have also set up a Twitter account @penn_dshistory, which will document the conference in detail for those who can not attend in person.

WG: Since this is a conference on disability, accessibility is obviously an important issue. What kinds of accessibility considerations have you made? For example, with there be ASL interpreters, are provisions being made for blind persons or people with chemical sensitivities, etc?

CM: Our conference planning committee tried to incorporate access from the very beginning. We've purposely structured events so all participants can attend all panels (this is in part to create a community of listeners around the history of disability studies, but also a way of making the conference content available to everyone). We plan to have ASL interpreters for every panel, and we're in the process of setting up a comfortable rest room right near the conference venue for speakers or attendees who may need some down time throughout the conference. We also will ask that all participants say their names before they speak (to help blind or visually impaired people), request speakers to provide access copies of their talks, and ask that people remain fragrance free throughout the duration of the conference. As we get deeper into planning, I imagine that more opportunities for thinking more creatively about access will arise.

WG: Clare, you are not only part of the planning committee but a disabilities scholar yourself. Will you talk a little bit about your own work and your main areas of interest?

CM: Yes, I first became interested in disability studies during my senior year in college. At the time, I was involved in a number of mental health activist initiatives, and one of my professors suggested I could bridge my academic interests in literature with my activists interests in mental health by turning to the emerging field of disability studies. Since beginning graduate school, I have looked to find ways of bridging my interdisciplinary investments in disability studies and material culture (I've been fascinated by what role objects play in texts) with my period-based work in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature. In suggesting that disability is not the product of individual bodies but a result of built environments, the field of disability studies understands the material world as an animate actor in creating definitions of disability. Early on in my research, I began to think about what kind of built environments are established in texts and turned to the materiality of texts themselves—paper, typography, bindings, ink and texts’ references to material objects at the level of content—as a kind of architecture of the literary. In short, my dissertation explores how disability influences everyday acts of reading and writing.

WG: In the context of your last statement, you have done some research on Emily Dickinson, too, haven’t you?

CM: Yes, which we've talked about quite a bit! I've always been drawn to Dickinson because I have the nagging feeling that she's doing something right when it comes to talking about disability. The chapter focuses on Dickinson's relationship to constraint, which is—in some ways—her most obvious characteristic, from her writing practice to her living conditions. Her relationship to constraint and limitation often gets discounted in critical accounts of her work; for example, she is often read as overcoming her reclusion through her act of writing poems. In looking at her bouts of eyestrain and temporary blindness in the mid-1860s alongside her relationship to Amherst’s nearby Hills Hat Factory, I come to suggest that Dickinson was a poet whose poems were premised on limitation rather than "possibility." In looking at her very particular material practices of constructing her poems, I come to argue that Dickinson registers disability through a confrontation with textual space.

WG: It sounds as though this is going to be an important conference – in a way, it is a first of its kind. Is there anything more that you would like to add about the conference before we close?

CM: Yes, I believe this is the first event devoted to the history of disability studies as field. Especially given the current political climate where support for disabled people is under threat, the selection of talks promise to be important reminders about better advocating for the rights of marginalized populations by merging academic and activist endeavors.