Michele Friedner (Comparative Human Development) is fostering a new dialogue about disability rights

Sarah Fister Gale


Professor Michele Friedner is one of a new generation of faculty at the University of Chicago. Friedner aspires to bring fresh ideas and insights to students and faculty on campus through her research and coursework -- and she’s already having an impact. As a social and medical anthropologist, Friedner, an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development and the College, has quickly become a popular lecturer and a champion for disability studies. In the winter quarter she taught an undergraduate seminar: Disability in Local and Global Contexts, and a graduate course in the spring quarter: Disability, Dependency, and the Good Life. Both have been extremely well-received. “The students are invested in and excited about these topics,” she says. “There is definitely a demand for theories, conceptual frameworks, and lexicon to interrogate sensorial, cognitive, and physical difference. I believe that students are interested in studying disability as category and experience. Students respond positively to the provocation that thinking about disability contributes to and enhances how we understand human experience.”


When she’s not in the classroom, Friedner is also a member of the steering committee for the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Disability Research Interest Group, an editorial board member of Anthropological Quarterly and Disability Studies Quarterly, and an advisor for a European Research Council project on deaf migration and mobilities. Friedner is a faculty advisor for the CAS-funded Disability Studies study group and she is a faculty affiliate of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and the Center for Gender and Sexuality, both at the University of Chicago. And this past April, Friedner was thrilled to help organize the Chicago Disability Studies Conference: From the Margins to the Center: Disability Studies in Other Disciplines. “From day one, graduate student organizers worked dililigently to create a fully accessible event,” she says.


The goal of the event, which was co-hosted by the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois and had a waiting-list of attendees weeks before the event, was to explore the impact of disability studies, discuss its limits, and illuminate the ways in which it “transforms and is transformed by other disciplines,” she explains. “The event was held in Saieh Hall, one of University of Chicago’s few accessible buildings. It was a tremendous success and it was inspiring to see students, community members, and faculty from around the country who were invested in disability studies.”


Childhood experience inspires a career


Friedner’s interest in disability studies began when she was just a child negotiating her own deafness while growing up in Queens, New York in a largely Indian community. “I felt a connection with my Indian classmates because of the ways we were differentially marginalized,” she says. As an adult, she has spent much of her academic career studying the political, economic and social experiences of deafness and disability primarily in urban India.


Friedner received her BA in religious studies at Brown University, then worked as a high school teacher in a school for students who were diverse learners, and then she took a position at a law firm in Oakland, California as a disability rights advocate, where she supported a class-action law suit for the rights of deaf people to drive, and supported efforts to improve accessibility in public and cultural spaces, among other things.


She enjoyed the work, but realized that rather than becoming a lawyer, she aspired to academia. A trip to India on which she met with members of deaf communities in Mumbai and Delhi further nurtured her interest in the links between the similarities and differences of deaf experiences in the US and India, and she’s been focused on this area of research ever since. More than this, her work explores how deaf and disabled people create inhabitable worlds for themselves that are not just oriented towards the overdetermined framework of “disability rights. She has been interested in how changes in India’s political economy have created new opportunities and constraints for disabled workers, for example. “In India’s expanding multinational economy, disabled people have become the new immobile workers,” she says. They often get trained for low wage tech jobs by well-meaning non-profit organizations that pigeon-hole them in roles with little room for advancement. “Even though it seems like opportunities are expanding through these programs, they are actually diminishing.”


Friedner studied these issues as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, where she trained as a medical anthropologist. She received an MA in anthropology from Berkeley, and a PhD from the joint medical anthropology program, at Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco. Her first book, Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (Rutgers University Press, 2015), analyzes how sign language-using young adults in urban India work toward “deaf development.”


Since then much of her research has focused on how deaf and disabled people derive value, and what kind of value they bring to political, economic, and social communities. “In the past, ‘disability’ was approached analytically through the lens of stigma,” she says. But these days, as a result of social and policy interventions such as treaties including the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been signed by more than 140 countries, researchers need to think about how disabled people are increasingly valued and included, albeit not always to their own benefit. “The category of disability creates currency for these groups, but it also leads to different kinds of value-making projects that might not always be to disabled peoples’ advantages.”


Friedner is currently exploring these issues through three ongoing research projects:


 “Disability, Diversity, and Affirmative Action in urban India.” In this project, she analyzes how the category of “disability” interacts with other categories of differentiation in modern India, and the role that family, community, and politics play in creating opportunities. It also examines the shifting approach to work and training in India, and explores how disability claims are exerted in the context of affirmative action.


“When Deaf People Hear: A Study at the Intersection of Neuroplasticity, Technological Interventions, and Experiences in the Grey Zone of Deaf and Hearing.” This project, which is funded by a Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant, examines how cochlear implants redefine the narrative of deafness and how it is studied. “It has important stakes in that it provides an ethnographic examination of the effects and effects of bionic technologies that are becoming a norm,” she says.


State-sponsored cochlear implantation programs in India. The third project, which is an extension of the second, will examine the social and economic implications of providing free implants to children of families living below the poverty line, and what it means to educate and support deaf children who can hear. It also looks at what happens to these children when they cannot afford the maintenance or upkeep on these devices. “There are moral and ethical issues to consider,” she says.


All of her research ties back to a core goal of bringing attention to the emerging disciplines of deaf studies and disability studies, and finding ways to place these disciplines in conversation with anthropology and other social sciences. “The field of research on disability is expanding and increasingly scholars are interested in how disability intersects with other categories and experiences of difference.” She plans to continue championing this kind of research and supporting coursework at the university that makes students and faculty think differently about disability in all forms. Beyond this, as an anthropologist, she is interested in supporting and working with students interested in a wide range of topics: she is supervising BA theses of Comparative Human Development students on cosmetics, fat studies, and the ambivalence of cures and she works with graduate students interested in intersections between queer and disability movements, as examples.