Student Spotlight with Clare Mullaney

Text by Greg Johnson

Ph.D. student Clare Mullaney was recently awarded a 2016 Irving K. Zola Prize for Emerging Scholars in Disability Studies. Since she came to Penn in 2012, she's been working to build an intellectual community on campus around disability studies.

Photo by Mark Stehle
GARDEN STATE: Randolph, N.J.’s Clare Mullaney, a Ph.D. student in the Department of English in the School of Arts & Sciences, was recently awarded a 2016 Irving K. Zola Prize for Emerging Scholars in Disability Studies from the Society for Disability Studies. Named in memory of a dedicated disability rights activist, the annual award recognizes excellence in research and writing that shares the values and commitment to disability studies exemplified by Zola’s life and scholarship.
REDEFINING DISABILITY: Mullaney, who received her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College and her master’s in English from Penn, has been working in disability studies since she enrolled in graduate school. “[Disability studies] thinks about disability not as a fixed medical trait, but as a social and cultural experience,” she says. “A lot of scholars and activists use the example of wheelchair users. They’re not necessarily disabled until they encounter a curb on the street that doesn’t have a cut in it. Disability studies is invested in the idea that the world disables people rather than people being inherently disabled.”
WORKING GROUP: Since arriving at Penn in the fall of 2012, Mullaney has worked to build an intellectual community on campus around disability studies, and co-founded the Penn Disability Studies Working Group, where faculty and students—graduates and undergrads—interested in questions about disability and access can convene. “We’ll meet to discuss new articles that have been published in the field,” she says. “Often we’ll have a speaker come to share a work in progress or deliver a paper that they’re working on.” 
READING KINDLY: Mullaney says one of the things disability studies has taught her is to “read kindly.” “And I don’t mean that in terms of sentiment or even empathy because that’s one thing that disability studies is against, the idea that we should have pity for disabled people,” she says. “But to read with patience and without presumption. Disability studies challenges our assumptions about space, ability, and language, and it asks us to imagine a different kind of world, one that’s suited to all kinds of minds and bodies.”
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL: While an undergrad at Bryn Mawr, Mullaney was involved in a lot of mental health advocacy work. She says she is interested in broadening the definition of disability studies to include both mental and physical disabilities. “There has been some tension in the field,” she says. “How do we move from talking about people with physical disabilities to mental disabilities? That’s something I’m really invested in, thinking more about how mental and physical disabilities come together.”
CLAIR VOYANCE: After completing her doctoral studies, Mullaney aspires to be an English professor. “That’s the goal,” she says. “Teaching is something I’m really passionate about. Especially thinking about disability studies, I often see the classroom as a place where I can do the best activism work.”

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