A PhD Student Extols Literature of Empowerment for Those with Disabilities

Dean of Education Virginia Goatley and PhD student Erin Faeth
Erin Faeth, at right, stands with Virginia Goatley, interim dean of Education and Faeth's academic advisor. (Photo by Brian Busher)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 16, 2021) — Examples are rare of literary protagonists with disabilities who are depicted as complex individuals commanding choices, opinions and, most of all, agency — the ability to perceive and change their environment — says Erin Faeth, PhD student and lecturer in Literacy Teaching & Learning (ELTL).

Faeth finds one author, Alison Gervais, to be a welcome exception, and writes of the significance of Gervais’s 2019 young adult novel The Silence Between Us in a December article for the international quarterly Children’s Literature in Education. The journal awarded her the 2021 Emerging Scholar Award for her work.

A Means to Overcome Oppression

Faeth sees Gervais’ novel lying solidly within the framework of Critical Disability Theory (CDT), which critiques traditional discourses and assumptions about disability as serving to oppress persons with disabilities.

“Gervais’s book proves to be groundbreaking in its characterization of the main character [Maya], who has a sense of agency and power that allows her to overcome several obstacles and determine her own path in life,” writes Faeth in “Agency, Power, and Disability: A Textual Analysis of The Silence Between Us.”

In conjunction with other texts, said Faeth, Gervais’ novel serves a CDT objective by highlighting “current attitudes toward and ways of thinking about the concept of disability and ‘disabled’ individuals’ places in the world.” At CDT’s core, “are expectations for activism to educate and work against conditions that produce disability and [toward] collaborations with others in the service of social justice.”

This is not the positive situation Maya, deaf since 13, faces when beginning high school. There, she encounters situations in which she has no control over how she is perceived. Slowly, however, Maya exerts power in her situations, encouraging and cultivating more inclusive responses from other characters. She rejects a cochlear implant to “cure” hearing loss, not wishing to abandon the capital-D Deaf community. Despite difficulties and delays in many areas, she overcomes, with her story ending on a note of empowerment.

The Impact of Models of Disability

CDT emerged in the last 15 years as a critique of the medical and social models of disability. The more than century-old medical model, “conceptualizes disability as a tragedy or problem within a person’s body or mind that medical professionals should attempt to solve,” Faeth writes.

Beginning in the 1970s, she said, the social model was popularized, viewing disability, according to philosopher Sara Goering, as a “lack of fit between the body and the social/physical/attitudinal environment.” Correct the environment, says the model, and you achieve inclusivity. Out of this concept of society’s obligation came legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“A fundamental flaw with the social model,” writes Faeth, is “the dichotomy it creates between biological impairment and disability, and its refusal to consider biological impairment as an important factor in understanding the lived experience of people who have disabilities.”

Born out of the social model, CDT “specifically attends to disability as a social construct that results from the interaction of various factors such as impairment, a person’s response to impairment, and the environment,” writes Faeth. In doing so, it interlaces itself with activism, seeking to increase “the participation of several stakeholders who have an interest in social justice and equity.”

The Rareness of Empowering Literature

Literature such as The Silence Between Us plays a part in this effort. However, a survey of 44 publishing houses indicates that only 7.6 percent of their staffs identify as having any type of disability. This “likely represents many publishers’ attitudes toward the inclusion of people who have disabilities . . . and likely also affects the abilities of authors from diverse backgrounds to share those stories,” writes Faeth.“It will take time for authors to publish more texts that are representative of the diversity we see in the world.”

Faeth’s interest in the representation of ability stemmed, she said, “from growing up with two siblings who have disabilities. I jumped at the chance to explore CDT in more depth.” Virginia Goatley, interim dean of Education, praised Faeth’s results. “Congratulations to Erin on receiving the Emerging Scholar Award for her article. This is a prestigious award for a doctoral student and represents Erin’s close attention to scholarship opportunities throughout her PhD in Literacy doctoral program.”

Faeth received an M.S. in Special Education and Literacy at UAlbany in 2017 and a year later enrolled in the PhD program. Currently a teacher of elementary reading and math intervention for the Shenendehowa Central School District, she also instructs a UAlbany master’s level course on classroom literacy instruction as she advances through her doctoral studies.

It was in a doctoral course focused on the theory and research of teaching literature that Faeth began thinking of writing about empowering literature for disabled individuals. Two major events propelled her further: becoming an editorial assistant for the peer-reviewed Journal of Literary Research, and the mentoring from she received from Goatley, her academic advisor, in the UAlbany course Texts and Teaching in Literacy Learning.

“These experiences gave me the knowledge and confidence I needed to pursue publishing the article,” said Faeth. Her pursuits in the future, she said, will include continuing to impart a love of literacy to children and “conducting research that highlights the power of children’s literature to inspire us to think about and share our perceptions of the world.”