My Misadventures in Geneva, Part I of II

I wanted to share this “Conference Report” that just appeared in the Disability History Association Newsletter since it takes up issues that I hope will be of interest to followers of the Longmore Institute.   To learn more about the DHA and to read the newsletter, go here.

In late June 2012 I represented the DHA on the organizing committee for an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland that brought together the histories of education, youth, and disability.  I write to share the fruits of this endeavor, which proved to be one of the most difficult experiences of my career.  The two years leading up to the event and the event itself raised productive questions for our field.  They underscored the challenges not just for getting our work out there, but also for raising awareness even - and perhaps especially - for academics who pride themselves in being harbingers of progressive change.  The experiences also forced me to confront the conference theme, “Internationalization in Education,” in ways that reached well beyond intellectual content.

I embarked on this project with Paul Longmore just before he passed away two years ago, the idea being to raise the profile of DHA and to introduce the two other sponsoring organizations - ISCHE (International Standing Conference for the History of Education) and SHCY (Society for the History of Children and Youth) - to work in our field.  Speaking with representatives of the other groups at our initial meeting, we shared dreams that our organizations would collaborate in creating a new kind of conference that would showcase exciting scholarship while modeling disability access and inclusion as we wove together our three areas of intellectual expertise.  Having been invited to give the keynote in 2007, I was delighted to have found many kindred spirits in ISCHE, a friendly group about the size of the Society for Disability Studies.  Since they had active subgroups exploring gender and colonialism, disability seemed like a natural fit for this organization that would take the lead in planning the Geneva conference.  Like SDS, they even had a dance.  Their president from 2009-2012, Kate Rousmaniere (University of Miami, Ohio), had been especially zealous in making the organization welcoming to young scholars and new scholarship from around the world; this year in Geneva there were approximately four hundred attendees representing nearly fifty countries.  The North American leadership of ISCHE was genuinely committed and excited about working together.

DHA got some great visibility.  Our name was on everything, including all conference booklets, badges, bags, and even pens and notepads distributed to attendees.  I provided handouts about our organization, the website, and how to join that were included in the conference materials.  We were publicly acknowledged at each major event.  I venture to say the conference gave us an international presence and stature that not only enhanced our profile but also gave a greater sense of legitimacy; the name is out there in print and was literally brought home to the four corners of the world.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Kate Rousmaniere, disability history had greater presence than ever before in discussions of history of education.  Sure, I cringed listening to some work that clung to older models of disability, particularly in the area of special education where paternalism largely seemed to live on, but work expanding these ideas could be found on several panels, many of which attracted younger scholars.  One took up “The Internationalization of Blindness in 19th and 20th Century Europe,” with papers by doctoral and post-doctoral students from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal.  In another panel scholars from the USA, Mexico, and Australia grappled with schoolteachers and disabilities in the 19th century.  Individual papers explored physical education, children, examination practices, polio, the role of medicine and medicalization.  Conversations around disability proved lively and intense.  I loved watching lightbulbs go off as people realized - sometimes in the process of asking a question - that their own work had a direct relationship to the field.  Such was the case with one beginning researcher who delivered an entire paper on intelligence testing initially without realizing its implications.  Others were missed opportunities that a few astute observers commented on later, such as one of the plenary papers that discussed sex education, venereal disease, and forced sterilization.

But truth be told, disability history remains a tough sell, particularly in an international context where it’s easy for skeptics to dismiss it as an aggressive form of North American political correctness.  Even in the United States and Canada, the topic itself still challenges academics in ways we aren’t ready to be challenged, whether because of discomfort, prejudice, ignorance, or some combination of these things.  For people who haven’t thought about it, disability seems marginal and irrelevant to “real” history, in much the same ways that gender and race were considered insignificant a generation ago.

Thus, while seemingly ubiquitous on all the badges and pens, disability was strikingly absent from most aspects of the conference.  My push to invite a promising scholar with a disability working squarely at the intersection of the three conference themes as one of the keynote speakers was rebuffed in favor of a more senior person who ignored disability completely.  To be fair, a few of the plenary presenters nodded to the third conference theme, but for the most part this felt hastily added in and not thought through, more in the spirit of fulfilling an obligation than a genuine attempt to stretch intellectual boundaries.  One plenary presenter believed it sufficient to mention that a leading educator of the early twentieth century had “eye problems.”

Kate Rousmaniere and I found it even more difficult to convince scholars to rethink the conference milieu, a key element that would make it possible for some people with disabilities to attend at all.  The physical setting of a modern university building with ramps, elevators, toilets with wheelchair symbols on the doors appeared to meet Swiss standards of physical access.  I suspected that some of this was more decoration, the physical equivalent of conference presenters mentioning disability without really engaging with it in a substantive way.  But not being familiar with the fine points of local regulations, we had to cede to the standards of the place where we were foreign visitors and accept the word of our hosts.  Months before, I had contacted a local disability rights group that offered guarded reassurances that the venue was in the words of one informant “adequate despite some problems that probably aren’t worth mentioning.”  We breathed a sigh of relief: at least we didn’t have to worry about the physical environment.

But what of other disability-inspired innovations that would enhance the conference experience for all attendees?  Perhaps because of how physical access has dominated conversations about disability rights in the United States as well as in western Europe, most people outside the disability world get a false sense that the Problem is addressed once they see a wheelchair logo or get a whiff of Braille in an elevator.  In the spirit of our initial conversations about rethinking the conference environment, I struggled with how best to convince organizers and participants to take their thinking to the next level, somehow without being seen as imposing ideas that would be misunderstood as inappropriate or ridiculous.  I was, after all, an outsider in more than one sense.

At the same time, my experiences with organizing other events revealed the incredible value for all participants of introducing a broader sense of conference accessibility, even if just to get people to think about what academics take for granted in these settings. I was forged in the crucible of the Society for Disability Studies board and mentored by Paul Longmore who organized various conferences.  We engaged in endless conversations about creating accessible environments that involved a dizzying array of details: guidelines for presenters, establishing a policy for captioning and interpreters, provisions for audio description, recommending multiple formats for conference materials, making sure all venues were accessible for a variety of speakers, establishing a quiet space, and working with major chain hotels to remove scented products that triggered chemical sensitivities.  No matter how many contingencies we planned for, someone would always complain, but the wiser veterans, who understood access as an imperfect work in progress, largely accepted that people complained because they actually could - where else might an academic organization make even the most remote gesture in acknowledging them?  From having taught a course in a French university that compared US and French ideas regarding disability, I suspected that for a variety of political, cultural, and economic reasons, such expectations were largely unique to North Americans.