Why ‘diversity’ should include disability

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week’s featured piece is Being ‘Different’ in a World of High Achievers by Allison Stevens, who reviewed an account by a Columbia professor of raising a child with Down syndrome.

In my book review of “Raising Henry” by Rachel Adams, I noted that Adams cited another book as a continuous source of strength and inspiration. That book, “Life as We Know It,” is also about raising a son with Down syndrome. It was written by Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, and director of the university’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities. I interviewed Bérubé about his experience writing the book.

Adams writes about the challenges she faced combining academia and parenthood in “Raising Henry,” and cites your book on a similar subject as a source of inspiration. Why did you write your book?

Basically, to try to make the world a more welcoming place for Jamie and everyone like him. I was inspired by Emily Kingsley, who, after giving birth to her son Jason, used her position as a writer for Sesame Street in the same way — to make that show a vehicle for greater disability awareness, as well as greater awareness that “diversity” should always include disability. I thought that given my position as a literature professor, with much less access to media but more access to academic fields of study, I should try not only to narrate Jamie’s life but explain why disability should be taken seriously as a subject in the humanities.

Are there unique challenges to raising children, and in particular, children with disabilities, in academia? Are there unique benefits?

Yes and yes. I will start with the good things: individual days and hours are very flexible, even though the academic year is inflexible — once a semester or quarter gets rolling, it is impossible to stop. And of course professors can work from home in ways that many people can’t. I like to say that although it’s a 60-hour/week job, we get to choose which 60 hours we want to work. And then there is a very large potential babysitting pool of undergraduates who like to work with kids with special needs for $10-12/hour. That is better pay than they will get at most pizza-and-sub restaurants.

 More to follow tomorrow.

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