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Disorientations: On Disability in Graduate School

Travis Chi Wing Lau //

Sara Ahmed, in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), asks what it means to be orientated. By thinking through sexuality in terms of lived, embodied experience, Ahmed challenges us to think about how queer bodies occupy space and time. She writes that “if orientation is a matter of how we reside in space, then sexual orientation might also be a matter of residence; of how we inhabit space as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we inhabit spaces with.”[1] In other words, she asks how we find our way in this world – in our selves, among many other selves.

Ahmed’s work is provocative because it, along with the work of scholars like Ann Cvetvokich and Kathleen Stewart, attempts to theorize the experience of daily life. But Ahmed’s study of orientations does not rest on the singular body but on “the world of shared inhabitance.”[2] Disability studies has devoted much critical attention to the concept of interdependence, and in revisiting Ahmed’s work, it is clear to me that both queer studies and disability studies entreat us to think seriously about our own situatedness in relation to other bodies. By virtue of having bodies, we necessarily share and shape space.

In her concluding chapter of Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed thinks about the experience of being “disoriented”:

I want us to think about how queer politics might invoke disorientation, without legislating disorientation as a politics. It is not that disorientation is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support or as they search for a place to reground or reorient their relation to the world… And for sure, bodies that experience being out of place might need to be orientated, to find a place where they feel comfortable and safe in the world. The point is not whether we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do), but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces.[3]

Is disability a kind of disorientation? What if a disabled body refuses to orient or reorient itself? How does inhabiting disorientation change our perspectives on space and bodies or even transform these spaces and bodies entirely? If disability, as Alison Kafer has suggested, is an experience of relations,[4] what precisely is the relation between disoriented bodies or is this relation a disabled one?

Ahmed later goes on to describe disorientation as “involv[ing] failed orientations: bodies inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach.”[5] Bodies that fail to ascribe to certain normative orientations produce blockages or what Ahmed calls “stress points” and these disoriented bodies “can even take the shape of such stress, as points of social and physical pressure that can be experienced as a physical press on the surface of the skin.”[6] For queer people, deviance from heteronormative frameworks of being and living have physical and mental consequences. To frame the same experience in terms of the social model of disability, we might say that ableist norms and social conventions produce such “stress points” for disoriented and disabled bodies forced to bend and break.

Having just completed my dissertation, I have been thinking a lot about the many “stress points” of being disabled in graduate school. I have for over two decades struggled with long-term chronic pain and brain fog as a result of my scoliosis-related disability.

My spinal x-ray from 2010.

Part of learning to write my dissertation was also learning to navigate disorientation and its unexpected contours of pain linked directly to the act of scholarly labor itself. Disability’s (ar)rhythms often clash with the academy’s relentless temporality that frequently makes costly demands upon my physical and affective resources.

Some days feel like a series of compromises: Will taking the forty-minute walk to campus mean forty minutes of recovery before I teach? Will writing for six hours result in potentially a day of incapacity the following day? Will I need to budget more time and money to fly to an academic conference early in order to give myself enough time to rest?

Through a still-ongoing process of trial and error, I discovered that, much like the writing of a dissertation itself, “scoliosis-related disability is episodic, not linear, a matter of intensities, sensations, and situations, not illness and cure.”[7] My disability refuses routines, refuses structures that would otherwise produce more “stress points” in my daily life that require constant attention. As Merri Lisa Johnson writes, her experiences with scoliosis have led her to

this place of crip willfulness, which sounds like a mean place of stubborn resistance, but feels like a calm relinquishing of fantasies that I can force (situations, bodies, emotions, sensations) to be other than they are. It is a refusal to insist—a refusal to act in accordance with the system of compulsory able-bodiedness—that requires individuals to mask, suppress, and disregard discomfort in the process of determining what is possible, of what we are capable.[8]

The relinquishment of such fantasies (however comforting at times) has involved not only confrontations with the many faces of pain but with the difficult realization that I and my bodymind will always be in tension with the profession I am training to enter. I have had to be willfully crip – willfully refusing the cult of productivity so often perpetuated by academic culture and the crisis narratives dominating discourses of higher education.

Among the many disorienting experiences of writing a dissertation, I want to remember the many “crip departures from normative time,” to use Mel Y. Chen’s fitting words about their own bouts of brain fog, because in these queer periods and spaces, I have learned painful lessons about the thresholds of capacity that my bodymind bears, the consequences of pushing myself beyond those thresholds in pursuit of professional goals. [9] Graduate school is itself an extended process of scholarly and personal disorientation. Living with a disability has persistently reminded me to take seriously my capacities. To refuse to forget them while inhabiting institutions that may fail to accommodate bodyminds like my own or sometimes fail to recognize disabled existence at all.

[1] Sara Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 1.

[2] Ibid. 3.

[3] Ibid. 158.

[4] See Alison Kafer. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

[5] Ibid. 160.

[6] Ibid. 160.

[7] Johnson, Merri Lisa, McRuer, Robert. “Cripistemologies: Introduction.” Journal of Literary & Critical Disability Studies. 8.2 (2014): 135.

[8] Ibid. 136.

[9] Chen, Mel Y. “Brain Fog: The Race for Cripistemology.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. 8.2 (2014): 174.

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