Growing up the child of cultural anthropologists, Karen Nakamura traveled around the world living in places like Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. And while being exposed to different cultures and communities at a young age helped her to conceptualize the world around her, Nakamura said she didn’t have a real sense of her own identity.
“It was hard for me to identify as just one thing,” said Nakamura. “But as I began to explore different community spaces, I came to realize that I could exist across the various parts of myself. That my identity didn’t have to be so monolithic.”
Now, as a UC Berkeley cultural anthropology professor, Nakamura, who is part of the Asian American, queer, genderqueer and disabled communities on campus, has focused much of her Berkeley Critical Disability Lab research on thinking through formation of identity and how people can create movements and spaces for identities to flourish.
The lab’s unofficial motto is “making better crips since 2018.”
On Oct. 25, Nakamura moderated a Berkeley panel with Jim LeBrecht and Judith Heumann — the director and cast members of the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — and discussed disability movements from the past, present and future. The event was part of the grand opening celebration of Berkeley’s Disability Cultural Community (DCC) center, located in the Hearst Field Annex (Suite D-25).
The DCC is one of the first college campus centers in the country to be dedicated solely to the disabled community, said DCC Director Ann Wai-Yee Kwong. With over 2,100 square feet of space, the center will provide student programming, resources, and counseling. It will also host community events and conferences for Berkeley’s disabled students.
Nakamura said the center will, more importantly, serve as a space to build community for disabled students away from medical-related services. A place where students can explore their intersectional identities together and mobilize.
“It was really the students who, for years, advocated and protested for this space, often in front of California Hall, and really forcefully stated that they needed a center,” Nakamura said. “They were part of their own movement that has now created the DCC for generations of students to come.”
Berkeley News spoke with Nakamura recently about how new community spaces can help build political power and why it is important for students to understand the history of the disability movement to move forward.
Berkeley News: Do you think the public-at-large sees folks in the disabled community as a monolith?
Karen Nakamura: Yes. But I think a lot of the new media and films, like Crip Camp, are doing a lot to help dispel what a disabled person looks like.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion at Cal about invisible disabilities, one of the largest areas of growth in DSP. The number of students who are using wheelchairs, or who are blind, has remained relatively the same over the years. The largest growth has been in people with learning and psychological disabilities.
And in some ways, those disabilities are more of a challenge for the university and how it functions. We know how to create ramps, automatic doors and visible fire alarms, but when people are saying they have chronic fatigue and have issues with their normative time of completing requirements to graduate, that’s a fundamental change that the campus has to address.
I think there is a change, internally on campuses, in how disabled people are seen, especially with the inclusion of invisible disabilities. There are these student movements that are changing the national image of disabilities, and that is impacting what resources are available to students now.
At Berkeley, it was really the students who, for years, advocated for a space like the DCC, often protesting in front of California Hall, and really forcefully stated that they needed a place where they could meet together as disabled students, separate from the DSP. They were part of their own movement that has now created the DCC for generations of students to come.
How valuable is it for students to have this new space on campus?
We call the current generation of students “the ADA Generation,” and they often come to college without a strong sense of their own disability identity. They may have used some services in high school, but don’t identify as disabled.
And so, it’s when they come to Cal that they start to grasp their sense of identity within the community. They’re realizing that their disability identity isn’t shaped by the services they use or by the medical community’s interpretation of their disability. Disability is existing in a world that isn’t designed for you. That’s what forms their identity.