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Ask the Oracle

Bridging Disability Justice and Intersectional Feminism in Applied Communication Research

Dr. Jessica Rauchberg

Ask the Oracle

Bridging Disability Justice and Intersectional Feminism in Applied Communication Research: Learning with Jessica Rauchberg, Disability Scholar-Activist

Written By: Danielle C. Biss, Doctoral Student, Ohio University

Danielle: I'd love to start our conversation by learning more about background as a scholar. So what brought you to the field?

Jessica: Awesome. Okay. So I was pretty adamant as an undergraduate that I would not ever study communication because I thought it was all public relations. I did my bachelor's at George Mason University (GMU) and I competed on their forensics team for four years and that is actually housed in the department of communication. So I learned a little bit from the grad assistants who were coaching my team, what Communication entailed, and it was so much more than I thought. Originally wanted to study conflict resolution, which is sort of like a specialty, GMU has its own college for it, and it was not my thing. And then in my third year, I took a rhetoric of social movements class with Dr. Mark Hopson. I was always really interested in activism and the internet, but that class changed my life. I didn't realize communication could be about mapping and amplifying the work that people do to make sense of their realities and as well, understanding how you can transform that reality. And so I also took a “Black Communication and Identity” class with him, which was amazing, and a gender and Communication course with Dr. Anne Nicotera. They were both very supportive of me applying to graduate school.

Also, at this time, I was kind of going through my own experience of getting diagnosed with one of my disabilities and I took a few disability studies courses at GMU. And I was thinking, “okay, I know I want to study identity and culture and disability and queerness, all with a feminist lens. But I don't necessarily know how to do it.” So, I chose a more generalist master's program at University of South Florida. This gave me a great training but I was able to play around with what I wanted to do. And then I fell in love with cultural studies and media studies. My thesis advisor, Dr. Rachel Dubrofsky, encouraged me to apply to Canadian programs because they are more interdisciplinary. Especially because currently we think of disability studies, especially critical perspectives on disability, as something a field of study tied to an English program. My program at McMaster University is housed in a Communication studies and multimedia department, but also allows me to work with scholars in the English and Cultural Studies department. So my supervisor here [Dr. Sarah Brophy] does some work in digital feminisms and disability on Instagram and social networking platforms.

I have always had these guiding interests and passions about disability, feminism, and the internet. It kind of took me a little bit to figure out where I was going. Going to McMaster has given me a lot of wonderful opportunities as a grad student and helped me to find my path.

Danielle: Thank you so much for sharing about your journey! I’d love to talk more about your research interests and how they’ve developed across your journey. How would you describe your research areas?

Jessica: I've always had affinities to critical cultural communication, feminist media studies, and critical disability studies. These allow me to pursue other interests in critical organization and activist research, feminist science and technology studies, environmental humanities, and health and technology research.

Danielle: How interesting! So, with all that in mind, how would you define crip theory?

Jessica: Absolutely. So first and foremost, disability studies is derived from the work of activists and advocates-- in our contemporary moment I think the academy is informed by disability justice and mad pride activists and cultural workers.  Sometimes there’s some big overlap between academics, scholar-activists, and cultural workers. With that in mind, one way to think about crip theory is that it is similar for what queer theory does for queer folks. Crip is a fluid and shifting understanding of how our bodyminds-- the body and mind are not separate here-- are shaped by cultural institutions in our world, institutions supported by white supremacy, late-stage capitalism, and settler-colonialism. And this can happen in a local cultural context or a more macro-level institution. Crip theory rejects cure and it’s very much based on ideas of futurity. What could happen or what are the possibilities of this idea? And by rejecting cure, I don’t mean that disabled people shouldn’t get the treatment or relief from pain or not have access needs met. It’s the belief that disabled people are whole and valid, no matter what, and that they don’t need to be measured by compulsory able-bodiedness and neurotypicality. It also means we need networks of interdependence and need to be in coalition with each other. So, you know, I’m not physically disabled but that doesn’t mean that I can’t amplify or work to support the perspectives of my community members who are physically disabled, and vice-versa. Crip and disability justice perspectives ask us how we can work for each other and rely on each other in a world where ableism and sanism are making survival impossible for a lot of disabled people, especially considering the political, environmental, and health-related precarity that has basically exploded in these last 20 years.

Also, I think my idea of crip is definitely informed by disability justice, which is a movement started largely by disabled Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, with an emphasis on the work queer and trans, incarcerated, and undocumented folks. The mainstream disability rights movement has done a lot of great things, but it’s also kept a lot of us out, especially neurodivergent and mad folks. Disability justice amplifies the leadership and lived experiences of these disabled folks. Crip theory does have some overlap with this. DJ more so is about applying these ideas of organizing survival and community building to finding ways to take care of each other. I think crip theory and DJ have a lot of nice connections that Communication scholars haven’t really centered yet. Maybe this stems from some apprehension and tensions around the idea of crip. Some say crip is for everyone to reclaim (like queer) but I think there’s a nuance to that and in some ways it’s not for all disabled people to use as an identifier. Perhaps with the ideas and conversations stemming from crip theory, but I think disabled people who aren’t physically disabled should not use that to describe themselves. Since I’m able-bodied, I know that word is not for me to use on an individual level, nor would I just assume people are readily reclaiming that word for themselves. A lot of Black disabled folks also have tensions around how crip is used and so I think it’s important to be mindful about language and reclaiming the term as an identity. We should follow the distinction that feminist disability scholars like Sami Schalk and Carrie Sandahl have made, there’s a difference between using the frameworks and ideas coming from crip theory. and showing their coalitional pull to revise how we understand our bodyminds and the creation of culture and identity. That part, I think, is for all of us.

Danielle: Thank you so much for all of that insight! With that definition in mind, what role do you see crip theory being advantageous to applied communication feminist research?

Jessica: Oh, I have so many thoughts about this. Sometimes it’s a bit shocking because the U.S. and Canadian branches of Communication are going through what some call a “social justice turn” but disability is not necessarily part of that conversation. And while there’s a new group of grad students and early career scholars who prioritize critical disability work, and truthfully I think so many people are afraid of saying the wrong thing about disability and working through their ableism/sansim. I think there’s also an uncertainty about how disability can come through in our scholarship and pedagogy-- that you can’t talk about disability if you don’t have that lived experience. But there’s a clear distinction, for me at least, about not taking up space or failing to amplify disabled scholars, cultural workers, and activists, and then just failing to talk about ableism, or adding it on as a passing thought. I think there’s also this belief that disability studies is limited to cultural critique or textual analysis, and not applied work.

I’m actually a research assistant for a project at McMaster called Arts-Based therapies to encourage Longevity in Elderly patients (ABLE). It’s headed by Dr. Paula Gardner, who’s an associate professor in Communication Studies and the director of the Pulse Humanities Lab at Mac. She’s really interested in bringing feminist media studies approaches to interdisciplinary projects surrounding technology and health justice. Using community-based participatory research and critical co-design approaches, our team takes these important ideas about agency and lived experience that crip theory and feminist theory really centers, and collaborate with older adults here in Southern Ontario-- people with dementia, careworkers, family members, care providers, and physical therapists-- to create a mobile communications platform that encourages social, cognitive, and physical wellness through art. Previous versions of the platform are similar to Wii Sports, but our current version is totally remote and can provide support even in a COVID-19 lockdown.

Before I began working with Dr. Gardner, our design team, and community co-designers, I found myself frustrated by this disconnect between theory and practice in regards to disability studies. So, like I said earlier, we have this assumption that cultural critique or analysis is rendered to more “traditional” academic projects. Yet these ideas are rarely brought into healthcare settings or community organizations. There’s also an assumption that disabled people cannot be theorists and creators. And that’s totally not true. What I’ve witnessed as a member of the ABLE project is that disabled folks practice and embody theory every day. Theory isn’t necessarily there to win an award or get something published. I mean, that has its benefits because yes, you’re circulating ideas within an academic space. But also, these ideas can transform beyond the paper and they can be so much more than that. What does a crip or disability justice approach to applied feminist research look like? For our lab, that means we work with our co-designers to help them meet their goals. So if that goal is finding a way for intergenerational connection through our mobile communications platform, we find a way to make that happen. Consent is ongoing. And we don’t make assumptions that what we create is going to “solve” or “cure” dementia or disability, but instead meet our stakeholders where they’re at. These approaches are totally possible, and there are so many ways to do this work.

Danielle: Absolutely! I've also noticed you prefer identity first language versus people-first language. Can you share with us why you why you use that?

Jessica: When the disability rights movement became really prominent in the seventies, there was a push for person-first language, like person with a disability. That is to show a person is not limited because of their disability, it establishes agency and control of the self during a time when disabled folks were unprotected in so many ways. It’s to say “we are people too!” Now there’s been a push for identity-first language, and this comes from neurodivergent activists. I fall under this category so I this is why I prefer to use identity-first language. I think sometimes non-disabled people or organizations can use person-first language in a really infantilizing way. I also think another reason why people prefer identity first is if your disability isn’t as apparent, to quote Sami Schalk. I know myself through my disabilities and through identity-first language, I can convey how my experiences shape this understanding.

I also work with people with dementia, right, and they prefer person-first language. I don’t think we should shame people for individually using what feels best for them. I think it’s always best to ask what someone prefers individually, but if you’re speaking to a group of people person with disability or disabled person is good to refer back to. Obviously euphemisms, like special needs, differently abled, or other phrases that just border on straight-up ableism and that’s a problem because it reconstitutes ableism and infantilization through language. So don’t use those.

Danielle: Preach it, girl! I appreciate you clarifying your preference. So we're both PhD students and we know part of our journey entails writing a dissertation. What types of gaps in scholarship do you hope to fill by using crip theory in your research?

Jessica: Working from my training in critical/cultural communication and feminist media studies, I’m hoping to extend both theoretical and applied-based perspectives to areas like organizational communication and health research. I’m really interested in how disability justice or feminist disability organizations use the internet, specifically social media, to transform the ways disabled people communicate, build community, and survive. Non-disabled people might think of online activism as “slacktivism” but between COVID-19 and so many different climate change-related natural disasters, the internet is a crucial tool for disabled people to survive and provide care and networks of interdependence for each other. I’ve been working on a project about how eugenics has been recycled into the algorithmic infrastructure in many of these platforms through shadowbanning. I have a public, academic Instagram account and I’m indefinitely shadowbanned on there. With this work, I hope this will open up more conversations and build coalitions amongst other folks, academics and writers/cultural workers alike. I’m hopeful we will start to have a bigger push for more critical disability perspectives in Communication, and that disabled folks won’t be gatekept from these conversations and discussions.

Danielle: Thank you. I'd love to talk more about bridging lines of scholarship. How can we as feminist scholars embrace disability justice and critical disability perspectives more in discourses of intersectionality?

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. I think that a lot of Black feminist disability scholars l really bring this point forward. I think this is where my last point about coalition building comes in. We cannot misappropriate  intersectionality as filling a diversity quota or having many identities. But, intersectionality can reveal how disability is operating in a legal and political system, how it is shaped by race, class, and gender, and how white supremacy is always already in conversation with disability and ableism. Disability  isn’t a single issue thing. Ableism and sanism are directly tied to anti-Blackness, capitalism, and settler-colonialism and these are always already in conversation with each other. So today, here in Canada, it’s Bell Let’s Talk day. Bell is one of the largest national telecommunications providers and “Let’s Talk” is their mental health campaign. And this focuses on eradicating stigma against mental health.  However, in terms of the prison-industrial complex, Bell has a contract with federal prisons and also provincial prisons here in Ontario. So incarcerated folks were charged extra fees to call loved ones by Bell, and were also prevented from making calls to cell phones. On top of this, many incarcerated folks in Canada are Black and Indigenous, and many folks are also mentally ill, mad, or may be psychiatric survivors. Many folks may also be poor. So here, Bell and their Let’s Talk campaign is case of how disability is part of conversations of intersectionality right? How does capitalism, policing, and our current settler-colonial legal system in North America become shaped by ableism and sanism, by anti-Blackness and colonialism, by the prison-industrial complex, the medical industrial complex, and medical racism? These systems are always in conversation with each other. Certain systems may be more apparent at different points, but the network is always there. So incorporating disability justice perspectives into conversations of intersectionality and feminism will truly transform how we understand communication, how we understand worldmaking, and survival. When we stop believing disability is separate from race or class, this will open up a lot of new pathways for knowledge creation. Critical perspectives on disability can take us to collectively build new worlds.

Danielle: You've mention that you use your social media handles as a kind of form of personal activism. Can you talk about broadly what you do on those platforms? I'm sure our members would love to learn more.

Jessica: Yes! I’m quite active on Twitter and Instagram on the handle @disabledphd. I think I use my Twitter like most academics do. But I have an academic Instagram, which I use for a couple of reasons. I felt pretty isolated when I started grad school, especially when it came to disability research and countering instances of academic ableism. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t well supported, because I had amazing mentors and friends. But there’s a disconnect when that support isn’t necessarily coming from other disabled people. On a grad school campus visit, I asked “do you offer disability studies courses?” And the person responded, “Oh, disability and communication don’t really mix.” It lit a fire under me. Because they do go together! I also experienced a lot of academic ableism during the PhD application process. As I was preparing for my PhD, a few mentors told me that I would need to make sure that I was still connected with American scholars, and social media was a great way to do that. So one day the summer before I moved to Canada, I thought to myself, “I want to connect with other disabled academics and activists. I want to support other disabled grad students and share what I know.”

I first used the account to share my experiences about academic ableism and starting a PhD program, with recommendations for students to engage in self-advocacy. But it quickly became a public scholarship tool to share ideas about my research, especially about disability justice, algorithms and surveillance, and digital activism. It’s been a really interesting experience because you never know if someone will read your academic paper, plus there’s issues of accessibility with academic publications. But here I get to connect with just about anyone, especially members of my community who aren’t in the academy. We get to learn from each other. And I think these ideas don’t have to stay hidden. My research and writing is for anyone who needs it, and especially in a time when so many disabled folks are isolated and forgotten in the pandemic. Instagram is a pathway where we can come together and share these ideas. In the disability community, we often say “Nothing about us without us.” Through social media, or through applying feminist and disability justice perspectives in communication research, working for this collective transformation is possible.



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