2018 Recipient

Dr. Esther Ignagni 

Below is an excerpt from the nomination letter prepared by the Student Alumni Advisory Committee at Ryerson University, School of Disability Studies.

Nomination letter for Esther

We are pleased to nominate Dr. Esther Ignagni for the 2018 CDSA-ACEH Tanis Doe Award for Canadian Disability Study and Culture. Over her 25 year career, Esther has consistently brought together innovative teaching strategies, community-based research, and fierce advocacy for the purpose of enriching the field of Disability Studies and furthering disability justice within and outside of academia. Esther upholds the feminist legacy of Tanis Doe for whom this prestigious award is named.

A proud disabled woman, Esther is a mainstay in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University where she figures prominently as an Associate Professor. She joined the faculty eight years ago as a community-based intellectual, and she continues to teach and research community-based strategies, politics, and practices relating to disability. Her teaching and research is informed by her lived experience. In 2010, she won the Ryerson Faculty of Community Services Sue Williams Excellence in Teaching Award. In the nomination letter students described Esther as an extraordinary teacher, noting in particular her longstanding influence, her accessibility and approachability and “how much of a superb role model she is in terms of her intellect and critical approach to teaching.” In particular,students credited their success and engagement in the area of local disability rights to Esther’s finely honed capacity to communicate complex and important issues in an accessible manner. Her passion for teaching, research, and learning is infectious. She encourages students to grapple with concepts, engage with research, think through access broadly and have confidence their ability to engage in their community work and to move on to further education.

Students also benefit from Esther’s willingness to hold space for discomfort. Discomfort often accompanies learning, especially when that learning can complicate and trouble your professional work. Many of the students enrolled in Disability Studies at Ryerson University are working professionals, with particular understandings of disability espoused by their workplaces, such as school and health care systems. In these workplaces students are often required to respond to disability in ways that compete with disability-related activism and its intersections, including, for example, mad, queer and Indigenous activisms whose social justice work resists and disrupts such institutional systems. Esther has an innate ability to deftly guide students through that process of discomfort, nurture the desire for future learning and help her students enact disability justice in their workplaces, homes and communities.

Esther’s commitment to excellence in the classroom in pursuit of social justice is matched by her commitment to developing and sustaining a rigorous program of community-based research that furthers disability justice. Committed to grassroots advocacy and activism with disabled people in their everyday contexts, her program of research draws upon participatory, collaborative and community driven methodologies. For example, she was co-investigator with Dr Ann Fudge Schormans (McMaster University) of Reimagining Parenting Possibilities, an Ontario-wide community-based, participatory research initiative. This project grew out of Strength-based Parenting Initiative (SPIN). SPIN is a user-led provincial network, created and operated by and for parents and prospective parents with disabilities of which Esther is member. The project responded to the acute marginalization and containment of people labeled with intellectual/developmental disabilities with respect to parenthood and intimate life. Esther’s sensitive facilitation across universities, with the project advisory committee, community based organizations and participants from First Nations communities made this a truly collaborative project. Creatively, the researchers, including labeled co-researchers, mobilized the knowledge gathered from this inquiry using forum theater, drawing upon Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed. This project culminated in the 2015 Making Space for Intimate Citizenship International conference which brought together people labeled with intellectual disabilities, community partners, academics, Indigenous leaders and artists from around the world.

Esther’s commitment to community-based and informed research is well established. She completed her PhD in 2011 within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation, Disabled Young People, Support and the Dialogic Work of Accomplishing Citizenship, used sociological theories to explore citizenship as a determinant of young disabled people’s health. Over a period of ten years, Esther engaged a group of disabled youth in creating short films about their experiences of home support as they made the transition from living with their families of origin to living independently. Her analysis brilliantly links these informal conversations to larger theoretical debates on citizenship circulating both locally and nationally.

As stated, Esther’s engagement in Disability Studies and grassroots research and advocacy extends from her own lived experience. To quote Esther directly: “As someone whose everyday life has been shaped by medicine, I am committed to directing critical inquiry towards and with this powerful institution.” Her unique blend of research and advocacy also extends from her time as a community health worker in the anti-violence and HIV/AIDS action movement in the late 1980s and 1990s. Esther asserts that this work shapes her understanding of difference and disability and reinforces the need for intersectional analysis attentive to disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, and class.

Esther is a highly collaborative faculty member who is willing to share her expertise and who contributes a great deal to the overall functioning and spirit of the school. Esther is actively involved with the Ryerson community. She is on the Scholarly, Research and Creative Activities committee for the Faculty of Community Services, she sits on the Internationalization committee at Ryerson, and was the part of the Universal Design for Learning committee. Esther skillfully brings her community engagement into the academic community. She also plays a central role in mentoring new instructors, researchers and students and is highly creative in finding opportunities for them in her growing research program. Certainly, Esther’s research, like that of Tanis Doe, advances the study and culture of disability by “speaking the unspeakable.” More than this, however, Esther’s dedication to creative and ethical community-based research challenges the widespread ableism in the academy and charts new possibilities in knowledge production. It is also fitting that Esther be awarded this prestigious feminist honour, as her work, in many ways, is a continuation of that of Dr. Doe’s. Prior to her death in 2004, Tanis contributed to the development of disability studies programs internationally, challenged barriers to postsecondary education, worked to draw attention to issues of violence against women with disabilities, and explored parenting from the perspective of motherhood within the disability community. In this she was a trailblazer, making space for scholars, including Esther, to continue asking questions about education, gender, and intimate citizenship among others in the scholarship of disability and culture.

Many years ago Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies acquired the Tanis Doe archives, a generous act from her family cementing a relationship that began in 2000 when Tanis Doe was recruited to teach the first research course in our emerging program. In the spirit of remembering Tanis Doe’s legacy the committee would do well to recognize the excellent candidacy of Esther Ignagni for the 2018 Tanis Doe Award for Canadian Disability Study and Culture.