Skip to content

Bryan Rusch, Disability Rights and Culture Fellow at Duke

This interview was conducted over email with Bryan Rusch, a Duke PhD Candidate, by Maria Alba, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. 


How do disability rights relate to human rights?

Simply put, disabled people are humans! 

It is a common phrase amongst advocates that anyone can become disabled at any time. To fight for disability rights is to work for others, and yourself. What I often stress is that we all exist on a spectrum of ability. For example, wearing glasses is an acceptable “dis”-ability. We have signifiers and cultural imaginaries as to what a disability is and what it means.

Notably, the difference between these two constructions is the law. The state of disability is a legally defined term which differentiates wearing glasses from being classified as disabled. To understand what is disability law and rights is to begin to understand disability as a socially evolving concept. Those who count and consider themselves “disabled” have evolved over the past century as the legal boundaries of the category have changed. To advocate and organize around disability rights is both a political and social force for change.


What was your experience as a Duke student with a disability? How did you feel about the resources available to you on campus?

I have spent nearly 8 years at Duke both as a disabled undergraduate and graduate student. Coming to college with a disability was both socially liberating and oppressive: amongst my peers, I was able to explore what my identity as disabled meant to me for the first time, while also seeing the raw reactions and disdain it could provoke amongst others. Likewise, my disability entered me into conversations and critical examination of Duke from my first week here. As much as disability presents literal closed doors and paths, it creates a revolving door of experiences which can reveal the nasty truths of individuals and institutions. Yet those experiences provide a space for reflection and change for all those involved. 

Duke has provided the necessary physical resources for me throughout my years, yet significant cultural change is still required. Faculty and staff must all understand disability as a complex experience to work with and advocate for, and not an anomaly to gatekeep and gawk at. As much as physical resources were in place for me, the understanding of and communication skills for the complexities of disability have been severely lacking.


Is there anything you feel Duke needs to change/improve regarding disability rights/access? Is there anything notable that they have changed? 

Increasingly, I have come to see the stigma associated with having and identifying as disabled as a complex problem which faces Duke and its larger campus culture. Disability is predominately viewed as in-ability and a liability. With a culture of high stakes and high effort, Duke’s systems isolate and gaslight those who know they have disabilities, who often go out of their way to ensure as few people know of their condition as possible. Simultaneously, that very same high stress often is a driving force in individuals becoming disabled. Whether due to underlying conditions to the surface or actively disabling, Duke’s environment is unfriendly to any type of disability. 

Efforts in various spaces are being made to highlight disability visibility as a way to erode the idea that there are no disabled people in the room. Increasingly our work is becoming connected and a network is developing to leverage the variety of institutional histories and resources we can tap into.


What challenges or successes have you had with creating change regarding disability rights at Duke? 

One of the major challenges which faces disability organizing is the disparate experiences which fall under “disability.” People with disabilities are not a monolith, nor can creating change for them be a simple Equity Training checkbox. 

Making sure people with all types of disabilities have a seat at the table in their communities, and can advocate alongside each other is of the utmost necessity. Simultaneously, we must approach the disability community with the intersectional and cultural differences of those who have disabilities in mind. How we each relate to our disabilities, and what we change we want to see can vary as much from disability to disability, as from cultural background. 

Simultaneously, identifying and communicating that diversity of experiences, the entangled systemic change needed, and the resources which are lacking is an active process. Ensuring that the voices of those most affected are raised, while the brunt of the work doesn’t also fall on them is always a challenge. 


Why did you choose the film I Didn't See You There that is going to be shown? What do you think people can/should learn from it? Why is it important to you? 

We choose I Didn’t See You There to highlight the experiences and “sight” of a disabled person. Oftentimes documentaries and films observe people with disabilities through the detached camera lens. The filmmaker Reid Davenport expertly examines the history and present of disability, and the centrality of that observational, exclusionary force. I hope the film will jump start a conversation about what disability futurity might look like, what our current circus tents are, and how the necessity to reshape attitudes and systems simultaneously.