Karen Nakamura, chair of LGBT studies and anthropology professor at Yale University, will join a campus institute as the endowed chair of disability studies in January.
The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society aims to bring together researchers, policymakers, organizers and others from different fields in order to generate scholarship on social equality. The institute is organized into seven research clusters — disability studies being one — led by eight endowed chairs and focused on equity and inclusion. Nakamura was the most recent hire to fill one of these eight new campus positions.
“I’m looking forward to working with students, both graduates and undergraduates, the faculty (and) the interest amongst the staff,” Nakamura said. “Part of the attraction to joining Cal is that it’s a public institution, and I feel that my job as an academic is to educate and benefit the public.”
Nakamura’s involvement in disability studies stemmed from her past research in feminist and LGBT theory. While doing research for her first book about the history of the deaf community in Japan, she found parallels between the treatment of the disabled community and the LGBT community, and began questioning the label of “disability.”
With this question in mind, she studied mental illness, especially schizophrenia, in Japan, culminating in a second book. She is currently researching transsexuality in Japan through the lens of disability and hopes to finish the project before beginning her new position at UC Berkeley.
When she arrives on campus, Nakamura plans to research the roles of prosthetics, robotics and augmentation in the lives of the elderly in Japan and the United States.
“One of the things that really attracted me to the position is the commitment to creating labwork to explore disability studies,” Nakamura said.
Michael Omi, associate director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, said Nakamura’s research topics made her stand out as an applicant.
Georgina Kleege, a campus English lecturer and a member of the hiring committee, said the “cross-cultural approach” Nakamura has used in her research based in Japan will help promote the institute’s goals.
“The Haas Institute is meant to promote collaborative research,” Kleege said. “We thought that professor Nakamura was in a good position to team up with the other clusters.”
According to Matt Grigorieff, a graduate student representative on the hiring committee and an executive board member of the Disabled Students’ Union, Nakamura’s empathy and passion for teaching set her apart from other applicants as well.
“I think the campus has been missing specific faculty to really look at disability,” Grigorieff said. “Somebody with specific intention to organize and advocate for (UC Berkeley’s) tradition with disability scholarship will impact undergraduate classes, Ph.D. candidates and types of community outreach events (our campus does).”