Her turning point came about by studying the philosophy and works of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche communities he founded.
After a career in marketing and en route to earning her doctorate, Pamela Cushing immersed herself in a L’Arche community – a place where people with and without disabilities share life together in recognition that each has something valuable to offer the other.
“I had a paradigm shift myself. What’s so neat about it is that it changed how I think about everything,” she said.
Her approach – identifying disability not as a deficit but as a difference – led to Cushing’s launching the Disability Studies program at King’s University College seven years ago. In its inaugural year, Cushing trial-ran four courses within Interdisciplinary Studies. Today, it is an independent program that offers 25 courses.
In recognition of her efforts, Cushing has been named the 2019 recipient of the Canadian Disability Studies Association’s Tanis Doe Award, which honours a professor who advances the study and culture of disability in research, teaching or activism. The award will be presented in British Columbia in June.
Key to the Kings’ program, Cushing said, is presenting case studies and multiple perspectives on disabilities. This helps students gain the context, knowledge and insight to shift their approach and influence sustainable change.
“Typically, the ways disabled people are represented, they’re pitied, they’re objects of charity, they need help, they need money. They are the passive objects of other people’s care and are treated as if this disability is something to ‘beat,’ ” she said. They are too often described as ‘heroes,’ ‘victims,’ ‘wounded,’ ‘overcomers,’ ‘clients,’ or ‘fighters.’
But the disabilities studies courses help students examine the cultural, structural, economic, legal and political barriers that show these stereotypes are unhelpful to the broader conversation.
“Disability Studies tries to turn the lens around and put the focus on all of society. It’s not about denying the differences; it’s about casting the differences in a different light.”
Cushing earned a degree in marketing at Queen’s University and, after some time working for a large corporation, grew more intrigued by anthropology and what motivated people to change their behaviours and actions.
Studying for her PhD, she delved into Vanier’s mutuality philosophy, which says individuals and the community benefit when people with and without disabilities work together.
The approach also asserts that disabled people have inherent rights: to accessibility, education and jobs, for example. That’s a significant departure from some organizations’ charity mindset, one where inclusion depends on the vagaries of funding, political power shifts, individual commitment or corporate goodwill.
“I’ll say to students, ‘This is not a class about being nice to disabled people. It is about theorizing, analyzing and critiquing the economic, political and social structures.’ It’s not a matter of, ‘If only we are nice to disabled people, everything will be OK.’ It’s the context that needs to change.”
Through case studies and a teaching philosophy that emphasizes listening to each other’s voices, students analyze both the practical and structural changes that might be needed to build inclusion. It is not, she said, “some sort of political-correctness class.”
Even so, the courses are designed to help students “be motivated and capable of influencing significant social change.”
She said inclusion must also extend to education as a whole, where a universal design for accessibility of physical space and learning materials should be embedded into the process.
Cushing – along with King’s, L’Arche and the Jean Vanier Association – founded the Jean Vanier Research Centre at King’s, which is dedicated to examining and building on Vanier’s work. The new centre aims to address both discriminatory acts and exclusionary attitudes and to change how people envision the value and potential of people who are disabled or marginalized.
In June, the Research Centre will bring together scholars, non-profit leaders and L’Arche community members in an inaugural symposium that explores Vanier’s messages.
Vanier – a Canadian philosopher, theologian and humanitarian whose work has been recognized nationally and internationally – has written 30 books about disability, inclusion and religion.
In 1964 in France, he founded L’Arche Community, in which “core members,” people with developmental disabilities, live with assistants and each learns equally from the other. There are L’Arche communities in 37 countries, including in London with three L’Arche homes and a new L’Arche gathering place.
Now 90 years old, Vanier recently went into hospice care in France.