Summer 2015: The Role of Transnational Disability Rights in US-Russia Relations

June and July of 2015 will find me in Washington DC, as a Summer Fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. I’m excited to be a part of this vibrant community of scholar working on global, policy-relevant research.

This marks a new phase of my research and the development of my manuscript, as I develop the ways in which the ethnographic research I’ve conducted with adults with disabilities in Russia holds relevance for transnational disability advocacy and for policymakers concerned with US-Russia relations and global human rights.

This phase of the project will focus on qualitative interviews with DC area experts including disability rights advocates, policymakers, and international relations practitioners. Interviews will focus on the recent history of transnational disability rights advocacy, on US foreign policy strategy concerning disability rights, and on how disability rights advocacy compares to other minority rights issues, e.g. gender and LGBTQ rights in these arenas.

A little background:

In 2012, the Russian Federation ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

As of 2014, the United States has not ratified the same Convention. In policy briefs and news articles, disability advocates cite the fact that Russia has ratified the CRPD as a manner of shaming US lawmakers, implying that a country often considered to be backwards on human rights is ahead of the United States on this issue.

What’s going on here? Why do Americans assume that Russia is always worse on human rights than the US? What is the recent history of the efforts of US disability advocates to lobby for a ratification of the UNCRPD? What are the political factors that have led to its repeated shelving in US Congress? When do US foreign relations practitioners bring up disability rights in transnational conversations?

In part this project will function as an oral history of the transnational disability advocacy movement. At the same time, it will document recent developments in both US-Russia foreign policy in regard to human rights, and offer a sustained investigation of how disability rights come into play (or don’t) when Americans talk about Russia.

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Barriers in Digital Worlds: A conversation with Amanda Cachia

I recently presented a poster at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association detailing the research methodology that I used in a recent project exploring barriers in digital space. In preparing that poster, I realized that I had lost track of a really fantastic component of that project, curator Amanda Cachia‘s interview with participating artists, including with me, on the subject of disability and access in digital and material worlds. Although the interviews are published in the Canadian Journal for Disability Studies, they are secondary to the curated artworks, which are the focal point of the special issue.

I especially like the following excerpt on accessible design:

There is no utopia. And something that might be enabling for one user can be totally disabling for someone else. So just the way the chirping sidewalk crossing might be really enabling for someone with low vision, it can be totally distracting for someone with autism, and then a similar thing can happen online where technological interfaces might be fantastic for someone and totally exclude other people.

This bit on the interrelatedness of cyber and material barriers:

We talk a lot about the built environment, and I think kind of take for granted that when we say “the built environment” we mean the physical environment. But we then use the word to build when we say to build a website, and in some ways that’s a metaphorical linguistic construction, but in other ways it’s completely not. It’s a very literal construction, not meaning to make a pun there, but I think when we are constructing a website, we’re thinking very carefully about how pieces fit together, and how design and elements might result in certain outcomes for users. And then you also have to – resulting question of how easy is it for users to rebuild or change or manipulate a given environment. And in some cases, it’s easier to manipulate an online environment, and in some cases it’s easier to manipulate a physical environment. But that also depends on who you are and what your embodiment is like. … So I think the kind of core of this is I wanted to lay bare how design can preclude or produce certain outcomes by intentionally or unintentionally allowing access.

And this section on non-text-based research modalities:

I think of this in the tradition of performance ethnography following Dwight Conquergood and other ethnographers. But I also think it’s really important to disability studies in that as an ethnographer whose goal is to recenter the stories of people with disabilities, I think it’s really important to put research outcomes in places and in voices or idioms or representations that aren’t only textual articles designed for scholarly audiences. So this is an attempt also at a public anthropology that lets laypeople and research participants interact in the process of knowledge creation in a much more explicit way than just being interviewed.

If you’d like to read the full interview, please visit the CJDS website, where you can find it as a .html webpage, a .PDF document, or as a YouTube video. All credit for this phenomenal set of interviews goes to Amanda Cachia, a phenomenal curator, scholar, and activist (and a fellow SDS Zola Award winner), and to CJDS editor Jay Dolmage for masterminding this special issue.

A visit to Moscow’s Higher School of Economics

The disability studies group at the sociology department of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (a university) put up this sweet post (in Russian) about my visit in February.

Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and her graduate students are some of the most dedicated social scientists I’ve met. I loved visiting their qualitative methods course, and of course talking shop with other ethnographers of disability in Russia.