Braille Monitor                          November 2019

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Exploring the Layers: A Blind Researcher, Mom, and Federationist Enhancing the Understanding of Disability

by Angela Frederick

Angela FrederickFrom the Editor: When most of us first met Angela when she was a national scholarship winner, we knew her as Angela Howard. Now she is married and has a child who seems to be as inquisitive, friendly, and socially aware as her mom and dad. On Friday morning Dr. Angela Frederick gave one of the most moving presentations of the 2019 National Convention. In it she talks about her personal journey to become a professor and what she has learned about intersectionality and her life. Her remarks make an incredibly moving case for strengthening our diversity and understanding of one another. Here is what she said:

Good morning, Federationists. Good morning Texas. [cheers] People are complaining about this microphone being too tall, but this entire podium is too tall for me.

In her classic essay, “The Outsider Within,” sociologist Patricia Hill Collins urged scholars from underrepresented groups to embrace the creative potential of our biographies. Documenting the contribution of black women intellectuals, Hill Collins employed sociologists to tap into the unique insights we bring as outsiders working within a traditional academic field.

I will share a difficult truth with you. During my doctoral training in sociology, I wanted nothing of the creative potential offered by my outsider status. I did not want to research disability. I wanted to be an insider. I wanted to be respected as a good teacher and researcher. I planned to land a tenure-track position as a professor. Disability had no place in my plan. I was terrified of being pigeonholed as someone who worked in a dusty, unrecognized corner of sociology. I knew I would be competing in an impossibly difficult job market. I wanted my identity as a blind person to be invisible, to just go away.

In April 2012 I received a call from the chair of a faculty search committee at a college in Memphis. He called to invite me to their campus for an interview. I was overly prepared for the moment. I took a deep breath and then cheerfully shared the news that I am blind. I was met with a long moment of silence. “I’m so shocked,” he finally replied. “Your research, your teaching—how?” I quickly decided that I should also let him decide that I am having a baby in three months when he picks me up from the airport next week. [laughter]

I knew that what I had to overcome in that daylong interview was tremendous. There has always been a unique kind of comfort I feel with other Federationists. We so deeply understand one another’s struggles to obtain employment and to overcome the social distance sighted people often put between us, and we enjoy the camaraderie of shared laughter over those absurd moments that only another blind person can understand.

Yet, blindness never exists in isolation. It exists in interaction with other aspects of our identities and experiences. I did not go on the job market for my first professor position as a blind person. I went on the job market as an expecting blind mother. In sociology we call this dynamic intersectionality. Developed by legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw, intersectionality is an approach that considers forms of inequity not as separate but as intertwined. The heart of this approach is that we cannot add up people’s hardships and privileges as if they are points on the scoreboard. Instead we can think of each aspect of our identity as interacting with the others. To put this simply, I am not a blind person on Mondays, a white person on Tuesdays, a woman on Wednesdays, or a highly educated professional on Thursdays. I experience all of these aspects of my identity every day. They shade one another, sometimes in unique and surprising ways. This is the case for all of us.

I did receive that job offer in 2012. [applause] My daughter had been home from the hospital for just ten days when we moved from Austin to Memphis, and I started my first job as a professor the following week. To make our transition easier, my husband became a stay-at-home dad. [applause] I’ll let him know he got applause from you. Yet, even with his unwavering support, it was a grueling year of firsts for me. By day I wore the hat of bewildered new professor; by night I wore the hat of bewildered and sleep-deprived new mom. Maybe it was the freedom I felt from finally holding that title of professor. Maybe it was just the chronic lack of sleep. But that year I finally felt ready to embrace my outsider within.

After publishing my dissertation research, I began brainstorming what my next project might be. Even though I had not been trained as a disability scholar, I felt more and more strongly that sharing the story of disabled mothers was an important contribution I was uniquely poised to make. So I set to work. Over a fifteen-month period I interviewed forty-two mothers with physical and sensory disabilities. I also conducted three focus groups with blind moms right here at one of our national conventions. I would like to share a few of my findings today.

In one article I published titled “Between Stigma and Mother Blame,” I explore blind mothers’ experiences in hospital postpartum care. I found this moment was in an acute time when blind mothers in particular face high levels of scrutiny and misunderstanding. At this time these new moms need to be able to engage in trial and error, to figure out how best to perform the tasks of mothering without sight. Yet, in the same moment, they are under the gaze of medical professionals who are now trained to watch mothers closely for risks they may pose to their children.

I also took up social class as a part of this project. I found that social class privilege did not entirely shield the middle-class women I interviewed from being unjustly portrayed as inadequate mothers. Disability brings with it such profound forms of prejudice that it is not erased by being middle-class. But I also found that, when a problem arose, the middle-class mothers I interviewed were able to lean in on their social class status to successfully navigate the threat. Their social capital mattered. They were more likely to be networked in with advocates and professionals who helped them. Their cultural capital mattered. They knew how to speak the language of dominant institutions. As one mother put it, “You have to know lawyer speak.” These mothers were generally able to garner their resources and present themselves in ways that were favorable to those in power.

I remain deeply grateful to these mothers for sharing their powerful stories of grit, hardship, and triumph with me. My research on mothers with disabilities has been the recipient of two outstanding publication awards and an honorable mention from various sections of the American Sociological Association. [applause] Most meaningful to me, I was the recipient of the 2015 outstanding faculty award, selected by students on my campus. [applause] These recognitions have given me the confidence to know that I no longer need to fear being pigeonholed into a dusty, unrecognized corner of my discipline. Disability is an exciting and critical topic of inquiry. It belongs at the center of sociology and in the center of our classrooms.

My daughter turns seven years old next week. She has spent much of her life on the college campuses where I have worked: practicing piano, having family picnics, balancing along retaining walls, and receiving much adoration from students. Her favorite new campus activity is to sit in my office chair and teach first grade math to her pretend college students. We have traveled as a family to attend what she refers to as “mommie’s boring conferences,” and she knows some of my colleagues to be her aunts and uncles.

Just as my daughter has grown and changed over the last seven years, so too has my research trajectory. I want to take you now to a recent article I published along with my colleague Dara Shifrer. The article is titled, “Race and Disability: from Analogy to Intersectionality.” In this article we document the ways both race and disability have been used as analogy in American social movements. Disability rights activists have long drawn parallels between disability injustice and racial injustice to legitimate disability as a significant category of inequality. In fact we have often done this analogy work in our own organization. My colleague and I do not argue this analogy work is always harmful. It is common for social movements to draw from the successful frames of movements that have gone before them, and it can be an important first moment of connection to draw such parallels. We do argue, however, that important histories and important people are missed when we do this analogy work to the exclusion of intersectionality. Moving beyond analogy brings into focus important parts of our history as blind people, including the mistreatment of European immigrants with visual impairments as they entered our country through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, or our painful history of eugenics, or the long legacy of blind African-American musicians throughout American history which Terry Rowden has so eloquently documented in his book “Songs of Blind Folk.” Indeed, the histories of disability, race, and immigration do not happen to have similarities as analogies would suggest. They are inextricably intertwined.

I am passionate about being a sociologist. I love understanding patterns in our social world. I love deepening my students’ empathy by introducing them to the stories of others and by encouraging them to share their own. In many respects I have you, the Federation, to thank for the career I love so much. [starts to tear up] [applause] In my younger years it was you who taught me how to be a storyteller. Giving testimony is such an important part of the work we do in the Federation. It was you who taught me how to be a story receiver, to meet people where they are in their journeys, to gently accompany them in their next steps, and to allow others to shape my next steps in turn. These are the great lessons from the Federation I bring to my teaching and research. I also bring the Federation spirit to motherhood. My daughter is biracial, bicultural, and she has a mom who is blind on top of it all. [applause] I work every day to help her develop a strong sense of self. I know she will need to thrive in a world that isn’t always going to nurture her unique identity. I feel well-equipped to give her this gift because, in the moment in my life when I needed it the most, the Federation gave that gift to me. [applause] I also want my daughter to know the joy that comes from being part of a force for good that is bigger than herself. I feel well-equipped to give her this gift because you gave that gift to me.

My husband often marvels at our daughter’s industrious spirit. She can find a solution to any problem, he says. He thinks she inherited that spirit from me. I know she inherited that spirit from you. [applause]

Becoming an outsider within sociology has deepened my appreciation for what a unique and special community we are in the Federation. Social science research overwhelmingly demonstrates that Americans remain segregated in nearly every aspect of our lives. Most of us live in neighborhoods segregated by race and social class. We are largely educated in segregated schools. We worship in segregated spaces, and even our volunteer and advocacy work does not often put us in contact with people of different political perspectives. And here we sit; we are without a doubt one of the most diverse communities in our country. We are diverse not only by our racial and ethnic and social class backgrounds, but by our religious and political beliefs and by our gender and sexual identities and family configurations. We are even diverse along disability, as many among us manage more than one disability. Our diversity is our greatest asset. [applause]

I believe using intersectionality in our work only deepens our collective power. Working at the intersection helps us to frame our message in ways that resonate across cultural and community boundaries. Working at the intersection allows us to reclaim aspects of our own histories that might otherwise be forgotten. Working at the intersections gives us the tools to create space for us to honor the stories of those among us who contend with more than one form of inequity. We will inevitably experience tension as we work at the intersections. We all have a lot to learn. We are all going to mess up, and we are all going to be asked to give others grace when they mess up. This is the good work!

Intersectionality need never be a threat to our unity. Our diversity is the glue that binds our solidarity. Thank you.

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