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Mad Positive in the Academy

In May 2012, the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson hosted an event entitled: Mad Positive in the Academy. This event brought engaged academics and community activists from four projects into dialogue about mad positive practices located at the intersection of mental health, formal education and social movements.

From 19 filmed interviews and roughly seven hours of footage, we have created three short videos, or ‘web docs’ that discuss: 

  • What it means to be mad positive in the academy
  • Discrimination in the neoliberal university
  • How to be a mad positive ally

All are grounded in the practice dilemmas expressed by conference participants, and the activist strategies they employ in partnership with or as members of the mad community.

A grant from the Teaching About Diversity Fund at Ryerson University in 2013 allowed us to translate some of what our participants said into this series of web docs. These web docs are designed for use by community groups and instructors in both online and in-person classrooms. We recognize the presence of a significant, if somewhat hidden community of mad-identified students on campus who are looking for a reflection of their own experience in curriculum. We wanted to provide some tools for thinking critically about how mental health is taken up on campus and link these concepts to other relevant social movements.

Mad positive in the academy: Early conversations

(10 mins 36 sec, captioned)

Mad positive in the academy: Making space to talk about discrimination

(9 mins 40 sec, captioned)

Mad positive in the academy: How to be an ally

(10 mins 54 sec, captioned)

Teaching tools

Questions for discussion

Here are a few suggestions of questions you can use to facilitate a discussion about each of these web docs:

Mad positive in the academy: Early conversations

  • What do you think it means to be mad positive?
  • What kinds of policies and practices could universities adopt to become more mad positive?
  • How is being mad positive similar to, or different from, being accessible?

Mad positive in the academy: Making space to talk about discrimination

  • What is the difference between ‘stigma’ and ‘discrimination’? What are the implications of using one frame instead of the other?
  • How can involving the mad community be threaded through scholarly activities, such as research and teaching, in ways that are meaningful, rather than tokenistic? Give some examples.

Mad positive in the academy: How to be an ally

  • What does it take to be a good ally?
  • How might teaching and learning practices shift to bring mad knowledge into the academy? 
    In what ways can people already situated within the university “walk the talk” as allies in this process?
  • At one point, Steve Tilley states that revolutionaries can “see the cracks in the system”. How does having the ability to see “the openings for something that needs to change” in a time of austerity relate to being mad positive in the academy?

Suggested reading list

Anonymous.  (2014, February 24).  Anxiety & Academia, external link

ARCH Disability Law Centre. (2014). Disability Accommodations in Post-Secondary Education.
Available for download here, external link.WordPowerpoint

Aubrecht, K. (2012). The new vocabulary of resilience and the governance of university student life, external linkStudies in Social Justice, 6(1), 67 83.

Baker, Katie J.M. (2014, February, 11). How Colleges Flunk Mental Health, external linkNewsweek.

Burstow, B. (2003). From Pills to Praxis: Psychiatric Survivors and Adult Education. The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education. 17, 1-18.

Church, K. (2015). “It’s complicated”: Blending Disability and Mad Studies in the corporatizing university. In H. Spandler, J. Anderson and B. Sapey’s (Eds.) Madness, Distress and the Politics of Disablement. University of Bristol: Policy Press. 261-270.

Cresswell, M. & Spandler, H. (2012). The Engaged Academic: Academic Intellectuals and the Psychiatric Survivor Movement. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 1-17.

Hamilton Mad Students Collective. (2014). Teaching Crazily: Supporting Students with Mental Health Disabilities as a TA. Available for download here, external link.Powerpoint

Jones, N. & Brown, R.L. (2013). The Absence of Psychiatric C/S/X Perspectives in Academic Discourse: Consequences and Implications, external linkDisability Studies Quarterly, 33(1).

LeFrancois, B.A., Menzies, R. & Reaume, G. (Eds.) (2013). Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

McGill Reporter. (2013, March, 15). Four Burning Questions with Kathryn Church, Director of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University, external link.

McKeown, M. (2012). Alliances and communicative action: One possibility for reframing theory and praxis. Distress or Disability? Proceedings of a symposium held at Lancaster University, November 15-16, 2011. J Anderson, B. Sapey and H. Spandler (Eds.). Bowland North, UK: Centre for Disability Research, Lancaster University.

Mullins, L. & Preyde, M. (2013). The lived experience of students with an invisible disability at a Canadian university. Disability & Society, 28(2), 147-160.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2009). Guidelines Accommodating students with disabilities – Principles (fact sheet), external link.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2009). Guidelines Accommodating students with disabilities – Roles and responsibilities (fact sheet), external link.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2009). PDF fileGuidelines on Accessible Education., external link PDF

Ostrow, L. (2013 July 6). Discrimination in higher education: Users & survivors in academia speak out, external linkMad in America.

Reid, J., & Poole, J. (2013). Mad students in the social work classroom? Notes from the beginnings of an inquiry. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 24(3), 209-222.

Reimer, M. & Ste-Marie, M. (2010). Denied access: Thee focus on medicalized support services and “depressed” women in the corporate university. Resources for Feminist Research, 33(3/4), 137-159.

Russo, J. & Beresford, P. (2014). Between exclusion and colonisation: seeking a place for mad people’s knowledge in academia. Disability & Society, 30(1), 153-157.

Williams, R. (2014, January, 24) “We just can’t have you here”, external linkYale Daily News.

Wolframe, P. M. (2013). The Madwoman in the academy, or, revealing the invisible straightjacket: Theorizing and teaching saneism and sane privilege, external linkDisability Studies Quarterly, 3(1).

Additional Resources

Mad Studies Network:

Mental Health in Higher Education Hub, external link

Asylum Magazine, external link

Web docs from the course Mad People's History:

COMENSUS, external link (Community Engagement and Service User Support)

Oor Mad History, external link

Centre to Study Recovery in Social Contexts, external link

Contact information and credits

For more information, please contact:

Kathryn Church, PhD

Director and Associate Professor
School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University
Phone: (416) 979-5000 ext. 4592
Mail: 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, ON M5B 2K3

Funding for the project Mad-Positive in the Academy: From Conference to Curriculum was provided by the Teaching About Diversity Fund at Ryerson University (2013)

Principal Investigator: Dr. Kathryn Church

Research Assistant: Danielle Landry

Video Editor: Jonathan Balazs

Videographer: Kathleen Mackey

Thank you to the advisory committee members, participants, and event sponsors of Mad-Positive Activism in the Academy: An International Dialogue on Practice (May 19-20, 2012).

These videos were shot on location in Toronto, Ontario at Ryerson University.