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Mobilizing disability survival skills

for the urgencies of the Anthropocene

A four-year collaborative research project funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (PI, Arseli Dokumac─▒).

COVID-19 has introduced to the broader public many of the issues that disabled people have long been facing. From being denied access to public spaces to restricted movement, confinement, and dependency on basic support systems (like food delivery); from online education to working from home or dealing with unemployment; from managing sanitary rituals and equipment to feelings of loneliness, isolation and precarity, the realities of disability have suddenly become the realities of many (albeit in highly disproportionate ways). In these times called the Anthropocene, when and where the planet’s resources are rapidly diminishing, and the “ongoingness” of life is at stake (Haraway 2016, p. 101), there will be more large-scale crises to come, and accordingly, a more urgent need for what Tsing et. al. call, “arts of living on a damaged planet” (2017). Drawing on the traditions of disability activism, arts and scholarship, we argue that disabled people have long mastered the “arts” (Marcus, 1996) of having to live in shrunken and shrinking environments that afford fewer and fewer possibilities for action (Dokumaci 2019, p. 495). Further, they have something to teach the world about those arts. Based on this premise, our project asks: why not ask disabled people about how to make things work with the least of resources, and how to keep life going against all odds? Crucially, how can we map out and mobilize disability survival skills to inform the rebuilding of societies during a pandemic and climate catastrophe?

From “collective access” to the community-based “care collectives” that disability justice activists mobilize to meet each other’s unmet care needs (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018; Erickson, 2020), from the “activist affordances” that they improvise to carve out liveable niches (Dokumaci, 2019) to the “crip technoscience” of subverting normative design (Hamraie, 2017), disabled people have long been making up and making real the accessible worlds that they were not readily given by making do with what they have. This vast body of knowledge is extremely pertinent to the conditions of life radically altered by the pandemic, and to the urgencies of the Anthropocene. And yet, there is little to no research that systematically investigates the relevance of disability survival skills and creativity to the new living conditions of the Anthropocene. As an interdisciplinary team of disability scholars with vast expertise in ethnography, we seek to address precisely this gap. Through an innovative, community-driven, participatory visual and online ethnographies, we will trace, systematically analyze, and render shareable disability creativity, survival skills, and expertise, and explore their applicability to the conditions of lives to be lived in ongoing climate catastrophe.

This project will provide a long-needed disability studies intervention in environmental justice, and the Anthropocene scholarship, and will critically inform fields such as design, urban planning, and environmental humanities. Crucially, the knowledge produced will be a unique source for policy-makers, for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and other stakeholders who seek to adapt their services and operations to the conditions of pandemic and increase their accessibility in meaningful ways. The project will help raise public awareness about disability, by subverting common stereotypes of disability as a “lack” or “tragedy”, and centering disabled people as experts, knowledge-makers and creators in their own right.

Project structure

MDSSA is a collaborative project spanning over 4 years. As a result of its collective structuring, there are a number of sub-projects that are being undertaken by the MDSSA team members. Current MDSSA sub-projects and their leads are listed below. On our website, under Current Projects tab, you may find details of these sub-projects.