English, Department of


Date of this Version

June 1996


Published in Teaching What You’re Not: Identity Politics in Higher Education, edited by Katherine J. Mayberry (New York and London: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 131–154. Copyright © 1996 New York University. Used by permission.
New York University Press is online at http://www.nyupress.org


I had no awareness of disability issues when I saw a sign at a busy intersection of carpeted footpaths at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1985: “Be aware of slow-moving Amazons.” This sign made me look at my surroundings in a different way. When I did, I realized that women with many kinds of disabilities were participat¬ing fully in the festival, and that I wasn’t used to seeing these women in my daily life. Yet I knew instantly that they were there; it was my awareness that had changed. Since inclusiveness was one of my goals as a feminist teacher, I resolved to seek out literature by women with disabilities and teach it. This was the beginning of a journey that had a profound impact on me and on my teaching.

The first writings by women with disabilities that I read were in With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology. I knew immediately that I would use this book in my teaching. In the fall semester of 1988 I ordered it for a senior graduate-level course, Twentieth-Century Women Writers. I looked forward to the class, a night class that I knew would have a number of nontraditional students, and was quite pleased with my decision to integrate literature by women with disabilities into the class. However, my complacency was quickly shattered the first night when a woman in a wheelchair wheeled into the room. My first reaction was, “How are we going to talk about disability with her here?” I knew then that I had a lot of work to do in coming to terms with my own relationship with and feelings about disability and my identity as an able-bodied person. One of the complications of “teaching what you’re not” I had not foreseen is “teaching what you’re not in the presence of those who are.”