"From Where We Sit" — An Interview with Dr. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Kathy Bates

“I think it's the best time in all of human history to be a person with a disability—in one of the richest nations that have good disability legislation, good services, and good health care.”

-Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

When I was first asked to interview Dr. Garland-Thomson, or "RGT," as she is often referred, I had no idea who she was, so my first order of business was to read her bio. Here’s the opening sentence: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is a disability justice and culture thought leader, bioethicist, educator, and humanities scholar. She lectures and consults on a wide range of topics, i.e., healthcare ethics, equity and inclusion, disability arts and culture, accessible technology, and design, program, policy, and curriculum development. I was very impressed. The thought of interviewing her on video was a challenge that made me a little nervous, but I was excited to accept.

 My journey to preparation began with my friends Google and YouTube. I learned that Dr. Garland-Thomson is a retired professor from Emory University where she taught feminist theory, American literature, and disability studies. In 2009, Utne Reader named her in their list of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her work as the author of Staring: How We Look. (By the way, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader, was also on this list.) At this moment, I began to wonder if I was in over my head.

I’ve never been one to back away from a challenge, even if I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I know that I’m reasonably intelligent with a lot of lived experience, and I understand the issues that the disabled community faces. However, even though I was very honored to be chosen to interview Dr. Garland-Thomson, for two straight weeks, a thought kept running through my head: Disability justice and culture thought leader. Dr. Garland-Thomson is an intellectual goddess! Given her accomplishments, I knew I was going to be nervous; there was no way around that. Even worse, the interview was going to be filmed, which also made me anxious.  When I’m nervous, my voice becomes more strained. I trip over my words and it’s much harder to make myself understood. When this happens, I call this my "CP voice." So I practiced asking my questions ahead of time. Even though I knew it wouldn’t flow like the actual interview, I thought I would do okay.

I felt like I tripped on my words a lot but I relaxed a little after a while. I decided to start by asking her a question about her array of jazzy glasses. It was a wonderful way to get started, but I almost forgot to ask the question. I also asked several questions that were related to topics I’ve written about in my blog. We discussed dignity maintenance, universal design, people-first vs. identity-first language, developmental age, invisible disabilities, and disability pride. This was not intentional, but some topics are always on my mind. We covered a lot of ground in the 45-minute interview. I was very happy when we finished because afterward, she thanked me for my questions and gave me a label I appreciated—"colleague."

I was thankful for Dr. Garland-Thomson’s time and thoughtful consideration of my questions. It is possible I didn’t do as bad a job at interviewing as I thought I did since she seemed to understand everything I said. Someday, I would love to have a conversation with her without cameras and lights.