Three photos. Left, women with pink hair standing using a cane next to har a woman with medium dark skin and black hair in wheelchair; center pink and green illustration of the covid virus; right person with black hair seated, right: peson with glasses medium sort hair looking at the camera and smiling
A $1.5 million award will fund research of the intersection of disability studies and chronic illness, such as long COVID. The project is being led by (pictured right) Ryan Lee Cartwright, associate professor of American studies. (From left, photos courtesy of Disabled and Here/Shona Kasinger, Trinity Care Foundation, Ryan Lee Cartwright)

Mellon Foundation Awards $1.5M for Disability Studies

Three-year collaboration between UC Davis and Yale connects disability and chronic illness

An American studies professor in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science has received a $1.5 million award from the Mellon Foundation for a project to explore the intersection of research on disability and chronic illness. The three-year project in partnership with Yale University aims to develop a national network of scholars, culture workers and organizers who will bring disability justice approaches to the study of chronic illness.

“Enduring Conditions: A Disability, Illness, and Care Collaboratory” is being led by Associate Professor Ryan Lee Cartwright in conjunction with Kalindi Vora, a professor at Yale University and former director of the UC Davis Feminist Research Institute.

This definitely gives UC Davis the opportunity to develop a national presence in disability studies,” said Cartwright, who taught the first UC Davis disability studies class last year. “UC Davis has the potential to be a leader in the field. We hope to grow disability studies beyond the three years of this project and to deepen our relationships with community organizations. This is an exciting moment.”

Cartwright and Vora will co-teach seminars for graduate students from UC Davis and Yale. There will be working groups, workshops, seminars, and two major summer symposia for academic scholars as well as grassroots collaborators from disability communities.

“Professor Cartwright has worked diligently for many years to enhance disability studies at UC Davis, and this award is an acknowledgment of his leading role,” said Estella Atekwana, dean of the College of Letters and Science. “In linking disability and chronic illness, such as long COVID, this project has immediacy and creates frameworks that will be relevant far into the future. In addition, it will build bridges across disciplines, higher education institutions, governmental agencies and disability rights organizations.”

Outreach from Mellon Foundation

In the summer of 2022, the Mellon Foundation invited Cartwright to make a proposal for funding related to disability studies. He reached out to Vora, who is working on a book about chronic illness. Vora, a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies and ethnicity, race and migration at Yale, is a former associate professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at UC Davis.

“We both have similar values and commitments, like being accountable to grassroots community members and recognizing the knowledge that comes from the communities who are most affected,” said Cartwright, whose most recent book, Peculiar Places: A Queer Crip History of White Rural Nonconformity, was published in 2021.

Bringing together disabilities and chronic illnesses has been complex.

Many people with disabilities are not chronically ill and don’t like to be thought of as ill — and vice versa,” Cartwright said.

“But we’re learning more and more about chronic and acute illness and how it intersects with disabilities. COVID has become a mass disabling event, and those with long COVID have learned a great deal from those with disabilities. Likewise, the Disability Rights Movement of the 1970s came out of the mid-century polio epidemic, another mass disabling event. As we are witnessing fundamental social and economic transformations wrought by COVID, bringing disability studies and disability justice to bear on the study of chronic illness has become increasingly urgent. It's an important moment to have these conversations."

The project could involve several College of Letters and Science departments, other UC Davis colleges and centers, as well as community organizations and individuals. The Department of American Studies has another connection to the Mellon awards: UC Davis alumna Emily Beitiks (B.A., American studies, ’05) is interim director of The Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, which received $1 million as part of the same grant cycle.

Program structure reflects larger goals

All aspects of the project will be organized to put those with disabilities and chronic illness at the forefront.

“The goal is to make it all radically accessible,” Cartwright said. That will include having cots and couches at the two summer symposia, simplifying applications and reducing “administrative hassles,” and providing a variety of financial support for those who want to take part on any level.

“We plan to build a diverse network with participants whose expertise and knowledge are rarely shared with higher education programs because they face multiple forms of exclusion and marginalization,” he said.

Long-term goals include increasing resources for disability studies at UC Davis and other universities and hiring faculty with disabilities.

“We intend to create institutional transformation that diversifies academic leadership, both growing the field of disability studies, and strengthening the pipeline, as disabled people are deeply underrepresented in the U.S. professoriate,” the project proposal states. “We will also provide mentorship support for academic participants with disabilities and chronic illnesses, particularly those who are also of color, immigrants and first-generation college students.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science


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