Southwestern Ontario Disability Scholars’ (SWODS) Workshop Summary

By Deborah Willoughby, JD/MSW [2021]

The first ever Southwestern Ontario Disability Scholars’ (SWODS) workshop took place on Thursday May 23, 2019 and was hosted by Windsor Law and the Law, Disability & Social Change Project. This workshop brought together more than a dozen brilliant scholars from universities in southwestern Ontario (with a couple from even further afield) to share their research pertaining to persons with disabilities while showcasing their unique interdisciplinary perspectives. Over the course of the day, presenters were organized into panels of three based on similar themed topics.

What I found quite interesting about the research presentations was the overall theme of erasure evident in not only history and the contemporary legal system, but also in commonplace things one may not necessarily question including films and pop culture. I was always aware of the lack of representation in these industries. However, I did not think of how the creative voices of persons with disabilities in creating content related to disability, such as memes, have been ultimately replaced by content generated by people without disabilities.

Ultimately, the workshop inspired me to continue to be a partner in advocacy with persons with disabilities to ensure their voices and experiences are heard, perhaps in a research setting similar to many of the scholars!

Here is my summary of these inspiring papers:

The start of the workshop began with the panel,“Sharing Knowledge on Disability.” Jay Dolmage, an Associate Chair from the University of Waterloo, began the day with his presentation on “Academic Eugenics.” He discussed the insidious eugenic underpinning within the culture of higher educational institutions in Canada and how disciplines have been established through the exploitation of others including persons with disabilities.

Following the theme of exploitation, Madeline Burghardt, an Assistant Professor from King’s University College at Western University, presented on “Uncovering stories of ‘difference’: Complicating popular understandings of Canadian nation-building.” Her presentation examined how government-run institutions for persons with intellectual disabilities have been used as tools for surveillance, biopower and categorizing people.

The third panelist’s research was also shaped by lived experiences. Pamela Cushing, an Associate Professor at King’s University College at Western University, presented on “Shaping a Disability Studies that Resonates with Diverse Undergraduates.” As the creator of the Disability Studies program at her university, Cushing’s reflections were  guided by her experience and by feedback from students in Disability Studies. Among other things, she discussed the importance of and meeting students where they are at, drawing on their own experiences and making spaces for disagreement and debate within the classroom.

The next panel centered around “Disability and the Person.” Ameil Joseph, an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at McMaster University, presented on “The subjects of oblivion: subalterity and contemporary technologies of transnational eugenics, sanism, and racial eradication.” He examined how critical disability studies is deeply connected to historical systems of dehumanization, institutionalization and issues of access and equity.

The morning concluded with Jake Pyne’s presentation titled “‘Building a Person’: Legal and Clinical Personhood for Autistic and Trans Children in Ontario.” Pyne, a postdoctoral Fellow at the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences at the University of Guelph, offered a comparative perspective on Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) and conversion therapy. He highlighted the similarities of both therapies which bring together ableism and transphobia.

The morning panels ignited discussions during lunch which continued into the afternoon panels beginning with the topic “Law, Legislation and Persons with Disabilities.” Beginning the panel was David Ireland, Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law, who presented on “The Canadian Jury Trial: Reimagining Jury Composition in an Inclusive Society.” Ireland’s presentation offered insight into jury representativeness where there is a lack of representation of persons with disabilities on juries. What does it mean when the voices of persons with disabilities are erased from having meaningful impacts on legal outcomes?

This theme of erasure was similarly discussed by Windsor Law’s Assistant Professor and Externship Director, Tess Sheldon, who presented on “Disability Erasure: The Enforcement of Trespass Legislation Against Persons with Disabilities from Public and Semi-Public Spaces.” Sheldon discussed various places in society where persons with disabilities are excluded such as in shopping malls and parks as well as the legal challenges associated with such exclusion.

Lastly on this panel was SWODS 2019 organizer, Laverne Jacobs, an Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Research & Graduate Studies) at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law. Jacobs’ presentation titled, “Defining the ‘Worthy Participant’: Disability, Accessibility Legislation, and Aspirations of Equality” discussed qualitative research on the experiences of people with disabilities in participating in the development of accessibility standards.

The final panel of the workshop was titled “Disability History and Societal Responses.” Jeff Preston, an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King’s University College at Western University, presented on the unique topic of Internet memes. His presentation titled, “Cool Story, Bro: Disability Memetic Histories, Subjectivities and Possibility,” examined how disability presents itself online.

Next,  “Managing Monstrosity: Population Construction and Control in Securitized Space” was presented by Jen Rinaldi, an Assistant Professor at Ontario Tech University, Faculty of Social Science and Humanities and Kate Rossiter, an Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Department of Health Studies. These researchers are interested in the concept of monstrosity and its relationship to people with disabilities and institutions.

The final presentation of SWODS 2019 was by University of Windsor Professor Nicole Markotić from the Department of English who discussed “Ageing and Disability in Howl’s Moving Castle.” Markotic described the film as demonstrating mobility issues for the protagonist who is magically transformed into an old woman. However, her age is also valued throughout the film. Often in films, disability or aging characters are seen as abnormal and disabled characters have to be contained or destroyed. Often, growing old is portrayed as a disability to overcome and the effects of aging should be resisted, especially for women. However, Howl’s Moving Castle illustrates a positive or neutral view of aging and disability, which is a refreshing change from the commonly negative tropes represented in contemporary films.

Overall, the first ever SWODS event was a successful enterprise which allowed interdisciplinary scholars to network and facilitate discussions, which ignited new ideas and future research possibilities! The SWODS conference of 2020 is highly anticipated and will undoubtedly generate similar academic conversation around disability.