Jennifer Natalya Fink Publishes Piece in New York Times, Launches New Book

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“Disability is often described as a tragedy, a crisis, or an aberration, despite one in four people worldwide having a disability. Why is this common human experience rendered exceptional and traumatic?”

Jennifer Natalya Fink, All Our Families: Disability Lineage and the Future of Kinship

As the Director of the Program in Disability Studies and professor of English here at Georgetown University, Jennifer Natalya Fink is revolutionizing the way we study, think, and hold space for disability in our own lives. Her opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, We Should Claim Our Disabled Ancestors With Pride focuses on the importance of embracing disability in our own family lineages, and the implications of stories going untold. We had the chance to sit down with Jennifer and learn more about what this work entails, as well as what we can expect to learn from her upcoming book.

In your article, you write about how in order to reclaim our own disabled kin, we must rethink how we perceive disability altogether. How would you redefine the meaning and value of disability? Is it different for every person?

“I think the first thing is to actually value disability–to see body and mind variation as a valuable part of human diversity. That’s a pretty radical thing in our ableist society!  Everybody’s relationship to disability is a little different. But we all have grown up with suppression, shame, and stigma around body-mind variation and disability.  Disability is an ordinary human experience. 1 in 4 people are disabled–which means all our families include disabled people. And if we should live so long, we’ll all be disabled. Yet too often we think of disability as rare and shameful. Without value.  By valuing disability, I don’t mean that we should minimize the challenges of impairment or glamorize pain. But disability is also a rich identity: a culture.  A community. We can’t access those dimensions of disability if we’re caught in stigma and shame. If we don’t even know our own disability lineage.

We also  need to name–and value– body-mind differences that perhaps we don’t even think of as disabilities. Mental disabilities, cognitive disabilities. If we explore our family stories, we’ll find that there are numerous disabled ancestors in our lineage whose stories have been erased, effaced, silenced. Everyone’s disability lineage is different; the important thing is that we assume there WERE disabled people before us, in our families, and seek out their narratives. Every family story is a disability story–if we choose to so tell it.”

In your experience, how has this process of creating a living disability lineage allowed you to fill in the gaps of your own family stories?

“Reclaiming my family’s disability lineage has worked two ways for me: first, it’s about finding the repressed family stories. The untold tales,  rumors, ghosts limning the family photo album. I knew –only hazily–of one disabled cousin who had been excised from my family story. I discovered another one who I didn’t even know existed.  They provided me with a context for my own daughter’s disability.   Naming and claiming them was paramount: absolutely key to creating a disability lineage, and for seeing my daughter and  myself in our larger family story. 

Second, it’s about rethinking the disability stories you already know about.   In my  case, that meant taking a hard look at  how my grandmother’s and mother’s deafness had been barely acknowledged in my family, even though it shaped so many facets of our family’s dynamics.  It meant facing my own ableism–my shame and fear around hearing loss–and also noticing how these deaf people were actually the best listeners in my family. In a sense, it’s more of a reweaving of the fabric of family than filling in the holes.”

Your new book, All Our Families: Disability Lineage and the Future of Kinship is expected to hit the shelves on April 4th, 2022. What can we expect to learn about our own families as we begin to reclaim our own disability lineages?

“Just how diverse our ancestors were! There were always disabled people in all our families. I hope my book helps everyone see that, and to understand why these stories were repressed and what is gained by telling them.”

When considering the implications of the pandemic on marginalized communities as a whole, how has this impacted your research? Have you noticed a shift in societal attitudes toward folks with disabilities?

“I think the pandemic has been double-edged for disabled people in particular and marginalized communities in general.  Ironically, the COVID pandemic has played a role in lessening systemic ableism; society had to quickly implement accommodations like captioning and remote learning. These accommodations benefit everyone,  as do so many designed for disabled people, but ordinarily are viewed as ‘special’, burdensome. On a more psychological level,  all of us had to see ourselves as potentially vulnerable in the pandemic. But disabled people, who are often the most vulnerable to covid,  have also been viewed as expendable, as not worth protecting, as we see in the reaction to mask mandates. And I am dismayed by the speed with which the dominant culture wishes to erase  and forget what it learned about accommodation, access, and interdependency, before the pandemic is even over!  So there’s still a lot of work to be done to truly transform our society to one that values and includes all of us equally. I hope my book contributes to that larger transformation!”

How can I get involved with the Disability Studies Program here on-campus?

“Go to (new window) ; you’ll find a wealth of information about our events, the DS minor, and our new graduate certificate program. Attend an event; take a class! And I’m always eager to talk to students; contact me (new window) or Professor Rifkin. We are a diverse, warm, welcoming community open to all.”

Jennifer’s new book, All Our Families: Disability Lineage and the Future of Kinship is available for pre-order now. You can also click here to see upcoming events hosted by the Disability Studies Program, and be sure to follow @GU_ENGL so that you can stay plugged in with the latest and greatest news happening right here at Georgetown’s Department of English.