Ann Heffernan is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and a 2020 LSA Collegiate Fellow. She examines the study of disability, through the lens of feminist theory and political thought. Heffernan spoke with LSA recently about her current research on disability and citizenship, the importance of intersectionality in understanding disability, and how her personal experience led her to this field of study.

LSA: How has the study of disability changed or evolved through the years?

Ann Heffernan: Disability studies mainly got its start in the humanities, but we’re beginning to see more of an interest in the social sciences. For example, when I was in undergrad—first at Wesleyan and then at Harvard—there were no courses on disability, though a handful discussed it in passing. That’s changed, but I’ve also seen a shift in the kinds of students who are interested in disability, and the students themselves tend to take a more expansive approach to and there’s more of an axis of equality. You see students who are disabled (or have a family member with a disability) and students who have no relationship to disability expressing an interest in these issues. There’s also been a shift away from thinking about disability exclusively in terms of identity, that is, as primarily concerned with disabled people, and toward a more expansive approach that considers both how disability is produced and how it functions alongside and in conjunction with other axes of inequality. 

LSA: Why do you think that students are more interested in taking courses about disability now? 

AH: The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the disabled community, but it has made visible just how porous the boundary is between ability and disability, especially as we begin to confront the impact of so-called “long COVID.” In the past, there was more attention to what we might think of as “traditional disabilities” (such as a person in a wheelchair), but now there’s a willingness, particularly among undergraduate students, to include mental health conditions or neurodiversity under the umbrella of disability. There have also been a number of social movements in recent years that have considered disability alongside other axes of oppression. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), for example, has a platform that includes disabilities, so there’s been more focus on intersectionality (the study of intersecting social identities in relation to discrimination, oppression, or inequality) and how disability can impact us in different ways.

I think more students are curious about this area of study either because it’s something that they might experience or it’s something they haven’t encountered in their courses before and they’re curious. I still get a few students who have a personal investment in the topic, whether it’s family members or themselves, but it’s fascinating to see the expansion and progression of interest beyond this core group.

LSA: What interested you in this field of study? 

AH: I have cerebral palsy, so I do have a disability, though I wouldn’t say that’s why I study it. I became interested in studying disability in undergrad, I suppose as a way of understanding my own experience and the discrepancy I saw between the passage of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the inequalities and injustices that persist in the present. 

I initially applied to Ph.D. programs thinking I wanted to do medical anthropology, then ended up taking a class on feminist political theory, somewhat by accident. It wasn’t about disability, but the orientation of the class and the way it approached particular issues—especially questions of freedom, injustice, equality, etc.—really spoke to me. I talked with the professor and mentioned that I was interested in looking at disability through a similar lens. She was surprisingly supportive, despite not working in the area herself. She had another student in the Ph.D. program who was working on disability and reproductive rights, and we’ve since become close friends and collaborators. From there, I applied for the Ph.D. program in political science at the University of Chicago.

Although disability remains understudied in political science, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my colleagues’ willingness to see disability as a valid (and productive) subject of academic inquiry. And while political theory may seem like an unlikely home for doing work on disability, it offers a vocabulary and a lens for thinking about issues of inclusion, citizenship, and power that I’ve found really generative. This was something I was always interested in, but I just needed to find a home for that interest.

LSA: You have a current book project, Disability: A Democratic Dilemma, that explores the significance of disability in relation to citizenship and the American state. Can you talk more about that?

AH: To the extent that scholars have explored disability and citizenship, they tend to think of it as a category of exclusion (i.e. disabled people as being excluded from citizenship or public life). While I agree with this approach, I show how disability is in fact central to the ways we think about belonging and inclusion.

I’m especially interested in the idea of “productive citizenship” and the belief, at least in the United States, that the enjoyment of full citizenship requires paid employment. Disabled people are often exempt from this requirement, but this only tells part of the story. In my book, I begin by looking at how this connection between work and citizenship was forged and maintained in the latter half of the 19th century—a moment of intense social and economic transformation. Where previous scholarship has focused on the exclusion and institutionalization of disabled people during this period, I show how some employers actually sought out workers with disabilities on the assumption that they would be more diligent and docile and—in the case of deaf workers—less “distractible.” While these practices weren’t widespread, they speak to the changes wrought by industrialization and the threat posed to the ideal of the independent worker-citizen.

In more contemporary terms, I’m interested in the disabling effects of social and structural inequality, and in particular how certain groups are made more susceptible to environmental, occupational, and toxic harm. One of my chapters is about the Flint water crisis, and how the disabling effects of lead exposure have been used by parents of children in Flint as a means of accessing educational resources. There’s one class-action case I examined, in which parents alleged violations of their children’s special education rights by the Flint school district. And while the case focuses on children whose disabilities were either caused or exacerbated by the water crisis, it explicitly links the denial of special educational rights to broader problems facing public schools, including declining enrollments and state funding.

In this way, parents are using disability to argue for resources that will benefit all students. It’s a tactical move and really a brilliant way to make claims for school resources, but it also highlights how hard it has become to access what were once thought of as public goods. In effect, these parents are saying these are resources that all students need and this is our only way of getting them in a schooling system that has been so decimated. Flint is one case, but there are others that illustrate the disinvestment in the welfare state and how claiming disability has become one of the few remaining ways to get resources or access to resources. 

LSA: Why is it important for us to know and understand this field of study and people with disabilities? 

AH: One of the common refrains you’ll hear from disability activists is, “we’re all going to be disabled one day” or “we’re all going to experience disability or dependence in some way.” And while this is true, it doesn’t in and of itself change behavior toward actually existing disabled people. That being said, I do think disability is likely to become more prevalent whether it’s because of economic or racial inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, or environmental change. The question is how we will respond to those transformations. I think we have to move away from thinking of people with disabilities as a discreet minority whose needs are primarily addressed through the provision of resources. But we need to start thinking of disability as something that is experienced in different ways and intersects with other categories of inequality in complicated ways, and that it’s not something we can just address with the ADA (as important as that legislation is). 

We need to have more nuanced ways to respond and engage with this issue beyond compensation and the provision of what are often thought of as “special rights.” What would it mean to really commit to disability justice and equality? What would need to change about the way we organize society? I think that it’s been fascinating to watch the progression of undergrad students willing to take this more expansive approach. We can think of homelessness or police violence or incarceration as a disability justice issue, and thinking of these things that aren’t easily identifiable as disability issues, but saying this is something that impacts or interplays with disability issues. 

LSA: What do you hope students gain or take away from your research?

AH: Ultimately, I hope students gain more of a perspective on politics and social life from engaging with disability studies. I like my students to explore complexity and uncertainty, to experience looking at things from multiple perspectives to consider how disability is impacting different groups or how is it influenced by particular social and political structures. I hope they learn to think of disability not only as a minority category, but as something that intersects with other issues—for example, debates around immigration, or policing, or environmental change. I hope students look at [disability] as an important issue and have a willingness to approach it from all points of view.


​​*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ann Heffernan is a 2020 LSA Collegiate Fellow. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching, and/or engagement.