August 28, 2019 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Dr. Pamela Cushing, Associate Professor of Disability Studies and Director of the Jean Vanier Research Centre, was invited by L’Arche Atlantic region to deliver the opening talk at the Celebrate the Gift Conference. The Conference was held in Antigonish, Nova Scotia from August 5-9, 2019.

Dr. Cushing’s keynote was entitled “What Counts as Community?” based on an article of the same title. She addressed head-on the challenges with trying to create a sense of belonging (or community) for and with those with intellectual impairments.  She argued that we need to address why even well-intentioned 'inclusion' programs often fail to end the crisis of loneliness among people living with intellectual disability. During her presentation, she used positive examples from L’Arche and insights from the late Dr. Jean Vanier and others.

“There is a difference between creating a sense of belonging - where people with intellectual disability really feel welcome - and the technical or physical access emphasis that often dominates our attempts at 'inclusion.’ We often inaccurately assume that being physically 'in' a mainstream space - a neighbourhood, classroom, movie theatre, will make marginal people feel like a welcome part of the community, but increasingly research is revealing that this is not the case,” says Dr. Cushing.

Dr. Cushing considers herself fortunate to have worked with Vanier.  “He never shied away from real-talk. He didn't think he had 'the answer' but he was not averse to naming the deep pain and social humiliation that intellectually disabled people have, and continue to face and to ask ‘why does this ableism persist even in light of rights and inclusion laws?’ I try to make the case that rights are necessary but insufficient – we can’t stop there - there is more attitudinal work still to be done,” she says.

“I had some wonderful conversations after my keynote from people picking up on points that related to their research or work, or even folks with contradictory impulses, ” says Dr. Cushing. “That sharpens my thinking for the better.”

In her second presentation, “Disability Studies 101,” Dr. Cushing outlined how Disability Studies shifts the focus off of “fixing” disabled people and turns toward dismantling the societal and legal barriers to belonging. She aimed to link core Disability Studies concepts to the Conference’s theme of inclusion.

“Disability Studies (DS) works against the pervasive belief that disability is ‘the problem' that needs 'fixing'. Instead, DS looks at what could be fixed in society (policy, law, attitudes, buildings) to break down the barriers that exclude,” says Dr. Cushing.

Having worked with L'Arche and Vanier on various projects since 2000, Dr. Cushing says “it was an honour to attend and be part of this exciting new intersectoral, knowledge mobilization initiative that Jenn Power, Regional Leader for L’Arche Atlantic, undertook.”

For more information on the Celebrate the Gift conference, please visit

To see a video made about the Celebrate the Gift conference, please visit

For more information on Disability Studies, please visit

For more information on the Jean Vanier Research Centre, please visit

Photo courtesy of Conference Photographer/Videographer - Liang Cai