An Interview with Professor Fran Odette, George Brown College
By Derek Newman-Stille
Q: To start off our interview, could you tell readers a bit about yourself?
Fran Odette: Wow, this is always a challenging question but here goes…I am a professor at George Brown College, in the Assaulted Women and Children’s Advocate Program as well as in the Social Service Worker Program. I identify as a queer, cis-gender female, settler and I have multiple disability experiences. I am a wheelchair user and am also hard of hearing, so I use hearing aids.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship to disability?
Fran Odette: I was born with a genetic condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Latin for ‘imperfect bone development’. It was hoped when I was young that surgery referred to as ‘rodding’ would allow me to be mobile and walk with braces and a walker…at the pace slower than a snail. This did not provide a good quality of life for me and so I opted for using a wheelchair for mobility and never looked back. It’s interesting that my relationship to disability started very early where my parents were told that when I was born that they should take me home because I did not have a long life expectancy – I think they told my parents maybe three months and now I am almost 58 years old. In many ways, that also affected bonding with my parents who were always worried about when the next ‘shoe’ would drop and something dramatic would happen to me. The influences of the medical model was alive as a young child as my life was always seen as somewhat precarious, in the eyes of others, whereas I saw my life very differently.
Q: How did you get involved in Disabled activism?
Fran Odette: I think much of my involvement around disability activism came from my own experiences of having to fight to be included and seen as someone who was capable as anyone else to do whatever; go to school, perform well on my job, be seen as someone who was a potential partner, a future parent, etc. When I was finishing my degree, I was dealing with an emotionally abusive partner who had followed me from one city to another. In my efforts to get out of the relationship, I met a wonderful counselor who supported me to see that in spite of my efforts to be the best that I could be, I was not going to be able to change my partner… that was up to him.
I came to realize that a lot of what I was experiencing was not only internalized sexism but also ableism. It was hard to tease out the complexities between the two, but I thought if I was struggling and was someone who was articulate, was able to advocate for myself, what about all the women with disabilities who were staying in abusive relationships because they did not have access to supports that could facilitate getting them out of the abuse and into safer spaces, such as shelters or other kinds of housing where they were not reliant on their abusive partners. It was my own experience in seeking supports, that I later became interested in wanting to learn more about other cis-gender women’s experiences who were dealing with violence in their lives. As a result, I later worked as a research assistant on the first official province-wide research for Office for the Status of Women (Ontario), looking at issues impacting women with disabilities in abusive relationships.
Q: Much of your work involves the exploration of the intersection of gender and disability with a particular focus on disabled women. What interests you about the exploration of disabled women’s lives?
Fran Odette: While I was completing my Masters, I was the only visibly disabled student in the program. Oftentimes, I would be asked by the faculty to comment on the experiences of disabled women. Perhaps it was unintentional, but I felt like I had somehow become the ‘spokesperson’ of disabled women… I began to wonder what were the experiences of other disabled women and so I took it upon myself to start reading anthologies by disabled women such as The Power of Each Breath, and began to see myself within the pages. I later ended up doing research on the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada, a grass-roots response to the failure of the mainstream women’s movement and also the disability rights movement to include disability and gender as part of their overall analysis leading to disabled women having to organize collectively to ensure that our issues were on the agenda.
Q: Some of your research explores institutional and personal abuses for Disabled people. Are you comfortable telling us a bit about what trends you have noticed?
Fran Odette: Yes, when I returned to Toronto I ended up working with the Disabled Women’s Network, Ontario where I shadowed mentors who had been the founding ‘mothers’ of DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), Canada. Ms. Pat Israel, was/is a mentor and wonderful colleague/friend who I feel indebted to for the incredible learning I gained from my early days as a ‘baby’ activist. While I was with DAWN, I met other non-disabled allies who felt that the conversations needed to be expanded as it was not just disabled women experiencing violence, but rather disabled people were vulnerable and at a higher risk for abuse by family, caregivers and other professionals. I later went on to work for the Ontario Provincial government where I worked on addressing the creation of policies and practices so as to ensure safeguards against abuse for persons who were institutionalized.
Q: What inspired your interest in narratives of the abuse of disabled people?
Fran Odette: I think that hearing the stories from people who have the lived experiences around violence are so important… and oftentimes it is those of us who are the most marginalized whose voices are erased or taken up in specific ways that are created by non-disabled people. Similar to when we are talking about supporting ‘victims’ or what I prefer to say are ‘survivors’ of violence, we need to remember that as providers we are not the experts. We have not lived with the abuser nor do we know the ways that survivors have ‘survived’ til now and what we need to do is ensure always that the person is in control. Similarly, I think that when reading texts about ‘how to work’ with disabled people oftentimes there is a particular ‘spin’ on the narrative, which may contribute further to seeing disabled people as ‘victims’ whose lives are already ‘tragic’ because of living with a disability. For many of us, we have had few opportunities perhaps even before getting into the abusive relationship, where we have not had control over our lives because of the dominant narratives that exist around disability, gender and violence. I feel that it is critical if we are going to make change and if folks who are committed to working in allyship with disabled people, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, we need to listen and hear what people need and want because we are the experts of our experience and the role I think of service providers is to facilitate opportunities for folks to get the kind of supports that work best for them.
Q: Disabled people are frequently de-sexualized in our society, yet we are, of course, sexual beings. You have done work exploring sexuality and disability. What were some of the things that stood out to you as important?
Fran Odette: When I think about sexuality within a Western context, I would say that much of how we have come to think about sex and sexuality has been skewed by the media. The messages about what it means to be ‘sexy’ or ‘desirable’ are dominated by unrealistic expectations and images which are unattainable at the least and damaging for all of us. I think that in actuality we live in a world that is quite sex-phobic. When we think about “disability” and “sexy”, these two tend not to be in the same sentence. It’s hard to find good sex-positive information that speaks to the experiences of disability and what it means to be desired. In looking at this issue, I joined with Dr. Miriam Kaufman and Cory Silverberg to co-author a book called The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability. It really isn’t the ultimate guide, but it was meant to be a resource that spoke not just to disabled people. Throughout the book, the voices of disabled people were interwoven.
Q: Much of your work has focused on the importance of Disabled people’s narratives and of us speaking our own narratives instead of Abled people speaking over us. Can you tell us a bit about why sharing our stories is so important?
Fran Odette: I think that what is key is that disabled people have always been here; we have been part of community centuries before medicine, the church and government influenced the ways in which we have come to understand the concepts of disability and impairment. We also know that many of us have experienced a history that speaks to a long legacy that has not been kind to us, that has actively worked towards eliminating or excluding us from being part of community. I think that because of legislation and proactive policies and practices, we are seeing more disabled people being part of the community and there is a demand that we take our rightful place in society and that we are no longer willing to be hidden away because of our differences.
Q: You have a passion for teaching about disability. What are some of the important things that you want your students to learn about Disabled people?
Fran Odette: I love it when there are the ‘aha’ moments; when students come together and are seeing the connections between their own experiences of marginality and that of disabled people. To hear from students who have never heard our history and have wondered ‘why’ it is only in this course that I teach that this history is becoming known? Why is that? I also love it when students are able to make connections about their own experiences of disability and take up those connections in a space that felt safe to unpack their own assumptions and to start seeing disability as an ‘identity’ could be something that could be positive.
Q: Is there a way that readers can find out more about your research and social justice work?
Fran Odette: I would imagine, you might be able to do a google search with my name. Even I am amazed where I will find my name and the connections that exist.