Where is the Ramp for Me? Cognitive Disability and the Academy

Dr. Ruth Elizabeth Burks,
Mr. Gyasi Burks-Abbott
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As the mother of a thirty-one year old African American autistic male who holds an MS in Library and Information Science — and as a scholar who specializes in African American literature and cultural studies — I speak from experience of the unique type of discrimination levelled at those like my son who live with an invisible disability. In "The Body Silent", the late Robert F. Murphy theorizes that the following holds true for those disabled physically: "The greatest impediment to a person's taking full part in his society are not his physical flaws, but rather the tissue of myths, fears, and misunderstandings that society attaches to them" (113). Not unexpectedly, a similar web of myths, fears, and misunderstandings are associated with the cognitively disabled — a web whose triad of assumptions sway the most enlightened members of society to stigmatize those with neurological disorders even more than those with physical impairments — particularly when it comes to safeguarding the academy. Co-facilitated with my son, the workshop I propose helps to explode the erroneous suppositions that prevent those labelled as cognitively disabled from enjoying the intellectual citizenship that the non-disabled of less intelligence take for granted as it encourages members of the audience concerned about diversity to reflect upon the following, all too often, unspoken issues: The pros and cons of labelling; The distinction made between the physically and neurologically impaired; The assumption that the cognitively disabled have less to contribute to the academy than the physically disabled; The presumption that memoirs — such as those written by the cognitively impaired — have less artistic merit or cultural value than those penned by non-disabled authors; The presupposition that the cognitively impaired — unlike the rest of the population — are not individuals, albeit with unique assets and talents, who can speak for themselves.

Keywords: Disability Studies, Cognitive Disability, Autism, Autobiography/Memoir
Stream: Disability, Health
Presentation Type: Workshop Presentation in English
Paper: Where is the Ramp for Me?

Dr. Ruth Elizabeth Burks

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Bentley College

Dr Ruth Elizabeth Burks is an assistant professor of English at Bentley College and a W. E. B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. Dr Burks' areas of specialization include African American literature and film, cultural studies, disability studies, and women's studies. Prior to being the first African American woman to earn her doctorate in English from UCLA in 1993, Dr Burks received her MA in English and BA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors in the major. Dr Burks also earned a certificate of completion from the American Film Institute, where she was a screenwriting fellow, and, more recently, an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she concentrated in administration, planning, and social policy. She is currently at work on two manuscripts: The first, tentatively entitled "The Ghost in the Machine," analyzes the representation of African American women in Hollywood cinema; the second, tentatively entitled "The Portrait of an Autistic as a Young Man" provides an extended qualitative interview aimed at illuminating what it is actually like to be autistic.

Mr. Gyasi Burks-Abbott

Board Member, Board of Directors, Asperger's Association of New England

Gyasi Burks-Abbott, a thirty-one year old African American male on the autism spectrum, serves on the Asperger's Association of New England's Board of Directors and on the state of Massachusetts' steering committee, "Advocates for Autism." At three and a half years old, Gyasi received a diagnosis of mental retardation, and the same medical experts told his mother he would never make it beyond the sixth grade. Today, in addition to being an Eagle Scout, Gyasi holds a MS in Library and Information Science from Simmons College and a BA from Macalester College, where he also graduated cum laude with a double major in English and psychology. An experienced speaker frequently called upon to share his personal reflections as well as his extensive research on autism and Asperger's Syndrome with parents, clinicians, and other autistics, Gyasi is currently at work on a memoir tentatively entitled "Incidents in the Life of an Autistic, Written by Himself."

Ref: D05P0233