Jim Ferris still remembers when the crowd went silent as he was playing his guitar at Southern Illinois University 18 years ago.
The first few songs had gone well. The audience was tapping their feet and nodding to the beat.
But then Mr. Ferris, who has a mobility impairment, launched into a light, witty ballad titled "The Three-Legged Man."
"I could just feel the gas going out of the house," Mr. Ferris said. "Somehow, the song was being related to me personally."
It's these kinds of "social weirdnesses" Mr. Ferris hopes to illuminate and explore in his new position as professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.
The university's Chair in Disability Studies was endowed for $1.9 million in 2001 by the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, which promotes independent living for people with disabilities.
"We have a lot to offer each other," said Dan Wilkins, spokesman for the Ability Center. "It's a collaboration between the university and our activism. You need advocates putting forth the information that's coming down from academia."
The unique relationship between the Ability Center and the university was a large part of what drew Mr. Ferris to the position.
"By making that gift to the university to establish a disability studies program, the Ability Center showed a clarity of long-term vision that is to my mind unparalleled at this point in disability studies," Mr. Ferris said.
A committee consisting of university faculty and representatives from the Ability Center conducted the search for the new department chair.
"Because of his vision and the fact that he's worked in a variety of disciplines, we feel that he can take our concerns about disability rights and build a program that has many facets to it," said Lee Heritage, interim associate dean of the University of Toledo's College of Arts and Sciences.
Mr. Ferris is a renaissance man of sorts - he has been a poet, singer, actor, reporter, gas station attendant, and head of the national Society for Disability Studies - and he will bring this interdisciplinary approach to his new position.
"One thing I hope is that we'll be addressing questions [about] disability across the campus, not just in classes labeled disability studies," he said.
In his previous role as a faculty associate in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Mr. Ferris taught rhetoric and supervised graduate teaching assistants who led basic speech classes.
"He is probably the most diplomatic person I've ever known," said Carrie Sandahl, a theater professor who was Mr. Ferris' colleague at the University of Wisconsin. "He is so good at getting people to work together and finding structure where productive conversation can take place."
In disabilities studies, a field shrouded in prejudice and misconceptions, effective communication and open conversation are invaluable.
"Disability in the past has largely been addressed either as a medical problem or as a community social problem, but disability studies draws from all the different areas, not just medical and social work," said Jerry Van Hoy, professor of sociology at UT and a member of the search committee that interviewed Mr. Ferris. "It focuses on the everyday-life experiences of people with disabilities, and the barriers that exist."
For Mr. Ferris, it is issues like these - the nuances of intrapersonal communications, the different ways we perceive and respond to the people around us - that make the field of disability studies an important one.
"The work that we do in disability studies is not just about that group of people off to the side that we call disabled people," said Mr. Ferris. "It's really about all of us, about what it means to be human."
- Laura Bennett
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