March 15, 2024

Gregor Wolbring to explore anti-disablism and teaching at 2024 Conference on Post-secondary Learning and Teaching

Q-and-A with UCalgary prof ahead of his April 25 keynote
Gregor Wolbring hero

Every year, the University of Calgary hosts the Conference on Post-secondary Learning and Teaching, which brings together hundreds of people to hear talks, presentations and research about relevant topics in teaching and learning. This year’s conference, Courageous Practices, is focused on equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in post-secondary learning and teaching.  

From April 24 to 26, this year's conference has multiple keynotes that will dive into various aspects of EDIA in post-secondary teaching and learning contexts. Leading up to the conference, we will share insights from speakers about their presentations.  

Dr. Gregor Wolbring, PhD, is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies program and the academic director (disability and accessibility) with the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. He will be sharing his expertise on April 25 through his talk, Equity, Diversity and Belonging in Post-secondary Education: The issue of Anti-Disablism and Attitudinal Accessibility. 

Q: Tell me about yourself — what’s your academic focus at UCalgary? 

A: Born without legs and a wheelchair user, I have been trained as a biochemist in Germany at the University of Tuebingen, the Max Plank Institute for Biophysics, and Frankfurt am Main, and the United Kingdom at the University College London and London Biotechnology Ltd and worked as a benchwork biochemist at the University of Calgary from 1992 to 2008. I moved into a faculty position at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, Community Health Science, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies in 2008, where I am now a tenured full professor.  

I am also a member of the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS), Karlsruhe, Germany and a senior fellow of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa, Canada. I see ability studies, including eco-ability studies, disability studies, sustainability studies, science and technology governance studies, sports and equity, diversity, and inclusion as my main research areas.  

Q: What does anti-disablism mean to those new to the subject?  

A: Disablism is the systemic discrimination based on irrelevant and/or arbitrary ability norms. Disablism is the ability expectation and ableism oppression, the negative treatment of the ones judged as impaired as “ability-wanted.” Disablism is the disabling use of ability judgment by the ones who have the power to set ability norms. Given this, anti-disablism is acting to decrease disablism based on irrelevant or arbitrary ability norms and expectations. 

One could say that enablism is part of anti-disablism. Enablism is the use of a given ability expectation or ableism by an individual or a social group/structure to enable the well-being of other individuals or social structures.  

Q: It seems that accessibility can get lost in the broad space of EDIA topics — why is it so important to ensure ableism / disability studies is included in equity work? 

A: I think one of the problems with accessibility as a term is that most people link it only to physical or IT access. Accessibility is much more and includes attitudinal accessibility, which questions stereotypes, stigmas and other attitudinal problems.  

The Accessibility Canada Act defines barriers to meananything — including anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice.”   

Ability expectations (it would be nice to have certain abilities) and ableism, the more severe form of ability expectation (certain abilities are seen as absolutely essential), are important concepts because ability-based expectations, judgments, norms, and conflicts often are at the root of inequity and lack of inclusion, and diversity.  

Disability studies investigates the lived experience of disabled people. Without taking this lived experience by disabled people into account, EDI will not work. EDI will not work either if the lived experience of other EDI-deserving groups is not taken into account. 

Q: What can attendees expect from your talk in April? 

A: Attendees will be exposed to the disablism and attitudinal and other forms of accessibility problems the EDI discourse has to fix in relation to disabled people. Although the main focus will be on disabled people, participants will also be exposed to intersectional content between disabled and other marginalized characteristics. Furthermore, many ability-based judgment, norms and conflict problems experienced by disabled people are also experienced by other marginalized but so-called non-disabled people and as such examples will also be provided for so-called non-disabled marginalized people. 

Attendees will be exposed to EDI problems through the ability studies framework, role expectations of educators, the issue of allyship, work and activist burnout dangers and danger of life burnout due to systemic discrimination experienced in the daily lives of marginalized groups. How to be an anti-disablist will be a main take-home message of the talk.     

Early bird registration is open until March 15 for the Conference on Post-secondary Learning and Teaching. The conference starts with an in-person pre-conference at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, followed by two days of virtual presentations.  

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