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Nancy E. Hansen, PhD


Dr. Nancy Hansen is Acting Director of the Interdisciplinary Master’s Program Disability Studies at the University of Manitoba. Nancy obtained a PhD from the University of Glasgow. Her thesis examined the impact of education and social policy on the employment experiences of women with physical disabilities. Nancy’s Post-Doctoral Research examined women with disabilities' access to primary health care. Nancy received an Einstein research fellowship examining Disability Studies and the Legacy of Nazi Eugenics. She is president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association (CDSA). In June 2006, she was awarded the Ireland Canada University Foundation Sprott Asset Management Scholarship to examine the history of people with disabilities in Ireland. Nancy has been actively involved with various Canadian disability groups for many years.


Disability Studies: Changing the Landscape and Shaping Our Future

Nancy Hansen, Acting Director, Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Disability Studies, University of Manitoba

What is the field of disability studies?

Not many years ago, disability would have been studied from a medical perspective, said Nancy Hansen. The field has come a long way in short period of time. Disability studies is still an emerging discipline, but it is changing the landscape of the academy from the ground up. The field is growing, and programs or elements have been established in colleges and universities nationwide. Disability arts and culture are found throughout Canada. But the most important aspect of disability studies is that people with disabilities are there. Their presence is changing established beliefs and practices on the front line. “We are making our way to the other side of the academic desk,” said Hansen. Still, barriers remain, she added.

In research on disability, a key question is “Whose knowledge counts?” Examinations of disability have largely taken place in the absence of people with disabilities, thus failing to take into account their own experience or knowledge base. The “strength in diversity” argument has been slower to take hold here than in other fields. Able-ist assumptions still affect mainstream research, although disability studies are beginning to change the landscape.

The involvement of people with disabilities has helped to move research away from objectification. But the question of whose knowledge counts—what knowledge is recognized as valid—remains a point of contention. The non-disabled majority still determine the terms and conditions of membership in the academy.

This situation is changing, but the move must go deeper than altered, politically correct language that is not always accurate. A fundamental shift is required if disability is to become an integral part of academic discourse. Accepted truths must be challenged with same vigor employed in other areas of study.

Innovative funding and knowledge-gathering processes must be developed, with people with disabilities in substantive roles at every stage. Key to this process is the recognition and acceptance that disability is a natural way of life.

Academics with disabilities are changing the way research is done, using methods such as participatory research. One anthropologist who uses a wheelchair does his field research over the Internet. This approach was met with resistance at first, but is changing now.

“Time and spatial organization gain enhanced significance when one’s movements and energy are distinct,” said Hansen. New ways are needed of dealing with the academic and physical environment. Often, academics with disabilities find themselves “at the centre of things” trying to look very professional. It can take a lot of effort to look smooth, because academics with disabilities must conform to a non-disabled environment. Yet their presence and input is changing research topics, funding, perspectives, and approaches in numerous fields.

Agencies such as the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies (CCDS) provide small grants for disability research. The CCDS works with the community and academia to change perceptions on disability.

People with disabilities do not create the broader constructs (political, economic, and social) of the world, but, in a more perceptual mode, “we do construct, imaginatively and discursively, the sense of our world.” This inner construction is what warrants access and understanding. The presence of academics with disabilities is reshaping perceptions. These scholars can be the conduit between the ivory tower and the disability community at large.

Hansen concluded with a warning: Many areas of study involving minority groups are becoming “sexy,” but easy domestication of these issues is worrisome. A danger exists of “tourism of the other” that avoids the deeper issues. But ultimately, Hansen said, disability studies and the participation of people with disabilities are promoting change.

During the ensuing discussion, Hansen was asked how people not involved directly in disability studies can become good conduits between disability studies and other fields. She responded that “you can take disability studies wherever you want to take it and bring it into your own discipline. Likewise, disability studies can engage with more traditional disciplines.”

Hansen was also asked how to negotiate the tensions between staying committed to the emancipatory research paradigm and staying true to the grassroots. She replied that “it’s all about dignity and respect, making inroads where you can.” She added that the key is to be persistent and professional, realizing that disability studies are a new way of thinking for many people and that change takes time.

Celebrating 20 years