Is disability a universal experience? The Obermann Center’s 2019 symposium asks provocative questions on disability and identity

Misfitting: Disability Broadly Considered

Iowa City Public Library, MERGE — April 4-6

Steve Oulman, a member of Systems Unlimited’s Seen & Heard group, shows off his OCG hat. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

I read aloud from a glossy flyer: “Disability is a universal human experience,” then paused to glance up at the man sitting in a wheelchair across from me.

“What in the hell does that mean?” he asked.

“Well, Steve,” I said, shifting in my office chair, “I think they mean that all people experience disability.”

“Wait,” Steve Oulman said, “in what way? Are they trying to say that just because you are gonna need hearing aids when you’re old, you have any idea what it’s like to be born with spina bifida? Fuck that.”

“They” is the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, and Steve wants me to clarify that he wasn’t cursing at them. We talked about other interpretations for the sentence he so objected to, and I suggested that, as an opening line, it had been designed to be provocative — to get readers’ attention.

Hopefully it will succeed: The flyer I read from was promoting the Obermann Center’s Humanities Symposium, which this year focuses on disability studies. It’s called Misfitting: Disability Broadly Considered.

And it is not to be missed.

Because whether you like the line and find it compelling, or whether it pisses you off, the Obermann Center is ready to engage with that. Its three-day symposium, April 4-6, is not a forum for scholars to hobnob and share their work among themselves.

“The symposium,” says Obermann associate director Jennifer New, “represents our effort to really speak to the public.”

Misfitting posits that disability informs the experiences of an able-bodied person like me more than I’m perhaps aware of and, in broadening conceptions of disability, asks me to join in creating a society that is mindful of a wide range of obstacles and excludes as few people as possible — not least of all by reminding me that aging, illness or accident could leave me unable to navigate spaces I used to move in freely. In that way, the symposium speaks to the public. But the public is also invited to speak back — to express, as Steve did, that he feels territorial about his identity as a disabled person because it’s a source of hard-won pride for him.

“A lot of people couldn’t do what I do,” he says. “I survived so many surgeries when I was a baby, and I’ve had bad bedsores. Just living in this body makes me a badass.” He self-styles as OCG — the Original Crippled Gangsta — which he had embroidered on a hat along with a pot leaf. “I got bullied and called cripple so much in junior high school that one day I said, ‘Screw it. I’m just gonna make this me.’” He wears the hat because “if my body is going to suck this much, I might as well try to have some fun with it.”

And some days fun is hard to come by. “I just want to walk,” he told me last week, when we realized after trekking to a gas station that he was blocked from crossing the street with me by a snowbank.

When I asked New about the flyer’s opening line, she told me that “[the symposium’s co-directors] would invite criticism of that statement and would want to engage in it. I think that’s why we do these.” Some of the panelists who are themselves disabled would also be able to hear Steve’s resistance to newer conceptions of disability and might compellingly suggest why intersectionality and coalition-building is crucial to political advocacy.

What I told Steve, and what I’d tell anyone who is disabled, or who loves or advocates for someone with a disability, is that on April 4-6, the preeminent scholars in disability studies will be in Iowa City (including Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, the author of Extraordinary Bodies, its canonical text), and we will have the rare opportunity to critique and applaud the direction of that scholarship. We have the chance to ensure that the theorists who are building their careers by writing about people with disabilities are accurately describing lives like Steve’s. And to ensure that these scholars are able, when the setting calls for it, to speak in a way that Steve can understand.

As New puts it, “Our very basic mission is to support academic research. In order to do that, academic research needs to be understood by and accessible to the public and other communities.”

In addition to a focus on scholars’ public engagement, the Obermann Center also helps Ph.D. candidates explore fields outside of academia and direct applications for their research. New explained that the Obermann symposium is “a very rare program on campus,” in that, after accepting applications from scholars two years in advance, Obermann works with academics to “broaden their notion of what a symposium can be. We work very diligently to bring in community involvement and to foster a back-and-forth between academia and the public,” she said.

Steve Oulman’s OCG (“Original Crippled Gangster”) hat. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Obermann Center is signaling its willingness to interface with the community and its commitment to public engagement by holding its symposium panels not in university buildings, but in the centrally located, easily accessible Iowa City Public Library and nearby co-working space, MERGE. (Find accessible parking in the ramp on the block next to the library, or if you’re rolling in a wheelchair van, just outside the library, and at the intersection of College and Linn, as well as four accessible spots a block down on Linn and Washington, in front of the Senior Center.)

Also noteworthy is the timing of the symposium in the middle of Mission Creek Festival, which will bring an influx of progressive, creative thinkers to Iowa City and, possibly, into the conversation. Of particular interest to festival-goers might be Dr. Joseph Straus’ panel on musical modernism (April 6, 3 p.m., in ICPL Room A) which suggests that its signature characteristics are in fact depictions of the non-normative mind.

I’ll be there most of Friday with Steve and several of his peers from Seen & Heard, an advocacy and community integration group run by Systems Unlimited’s day program for adults with disabilities. We’ll be there for the panels as well as for the invaluable chance to show scholars who most thoroughly have their interests at heart that, as the field grows, there are still so many literal doors that my group cannot get through.

Join us for a chance to interact with the disability community both from inside and outside of academia. Join us if you have a stake in how people with disabilities are studied, understood and described by scholars. Join us because disability studies is a new enough field to be shaped — because we can remind those who shape it not to let their discourse leave behind people who have historically been hidden away, blocked from public spaces and called names, but rarely consulted on how they’d describe themselves.

Or join us because, yes, someday you will be old and will need hearing aids.


Can’t-Miss Events at Misfitting

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Keynote: Family Misfits in the Frankenstein Ballet

Iowa City Public Library, Room A — Thursday, April 4 at 4:15 p.m.

Dr. Garland-Thomson, author of Extraordinary Bodies, was named one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” by Utne Reader. Her scholarship on the act of “staring at the other” is not only comprehensible to the layperson but was translated into a visual arts exhibit at Davidson College.

Early Career Scholars Roundtable: The Future of Critical Disability Studies

Iowa City Public Library, Room A — Friday, April 5 at 3:30 p.m.

Graduate students, experts and community members will come together to discuss the disability issues of tomorrow.

Nina G. performance and Q&A

Iowa Memorial Union, Hawkeye Room — Friday, April 5 at 8 p.m.

A comedian from childhood, Nina G. was told that someone who stuttered couldn’t do stand-up. Luckily for us, she shook that off and is now working as America’s only female comedian who stutters. She speaks compellingly of the way comedians “break the fourth wall, allowing an intimacy that lets people with disabilities represent themselves intentionally and in ways that counter invisibility.” Friday is a busy night for Mission Creek, but if you don’t have a ticket to Jay Som, you really have no excuse for missing Nina.

Earlier in the day, Nina will be interviewed by UI Journalism and Mass Communication professor Frank Durham from 1-2 p.m. in ICPL’s Room A.

Susan Schweik, Unfixed: How the Women of the Glenwood Institution Overturned Ideas About IQ — and Why We Don’t Know About It

Iowa City Public Library, Room A — Saturday, April 6 at 9:45 a.m.

Dr. Schweik’s work on the history of Iowa’s disability community is especially interesting to Seen & Heard, as the group partners with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to create a community space that memorializes those held at the Johnson County asylum. Schweik has done extensive work in Iowa and we’re excited to see her present some of it here.

Sami Schalk, 504 and Beyond: Disability Politics and the Black Panther Party

Iowa City Public Library, Room A — Saturday, April 6 at 11:15 a.m.

Dr. Schalk’s talk identifies an intersection between two groups of revolutionaries. Her writings and presentations are highly accessible — she has a degree in poetry, and it shows — and her interpretations of pop culture make topics many of us are familiar with even more fascinating.

Mary Helen Kennerly is a Community Integration Leader from Systems Unlimited, where she heads up the Seen & Heard initiative and supports the self-advocacy projects of the group she has the pleasure of hanging out with every day. You’ll find them out in Iowa City every day and on Twitter at
@icseenandheard. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 260.

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