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Review by Brooke E. Hotez, DSU, Email: brooke.hotez@dixie.edu 

Keywords: developmental disabilities, anthroposophy, curative education, ethnography, genealogy, sexual assualt, autonomy

Camphill and the Future: Spirituality and Disability in an Evolving Communal Movement by Dan McKanan, Emerson Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read; the text is included in the Luminos open access program <https://www.luminosoa.org/site/books/m/10.1525/luminos.92/>, 

McKanan’s clear and constructive prose carries the reader through unfolding layers across contexts that diligently explores the reemerging question of practical application of intangible values, or the material reality of philosophical and spiritual quests. Indeed, this seems to be a significant aspect of anthroposophy itself—the esoteric philosophical movement that was part of the founding of Camphill (as well as the Waldorf schools)—that is, to infuse human actions and the physical world with the spiritual. McKanan argues, “Camphill’s contribution has much to do with the fact that it has never understood itself as a utopia set apart from the larger society, but as a ‘seed of social renewal’” (16). As an intentional community fully inclusive of its members with developmental disabilities, Camphill refuses the medical model and retrofit-accommodation approach and instead organizes communal living around various wants, needs, gifts, skills, and biosocial rhythms of their members from the ground up.

In its pedagogical form, referred to as curative education, the founding ideals of Camphill have sought to provide holistic support, to find a balance between modern science and ancient homeopathic traditions, and to guide any individual on their distinctive path of spiritual development and self-actualization: all humans are equal, and each person has a purpose in the larger collective. The original curative education ethos “continues to inspire Camphillers to work holistically for the empowerment of all people regardless of ability” (McKanan 141). To this end, Camphill communities have traditionally experimented with and implemented lifesharing and income-sharing practices. This includes homegrown vegetables/foods from their communal gardens and farms, bakeries with daily fresh bread, limited television, artisan workshops, community performance centers, daily walks and face-to-face conversation, etc. This framework is still a part of Camphill today, but has changed over time across locales, and is not without challenge or difficulty. In the worst scenarios, there have been serious cases of sexual abuse, perpetrated against and by Camphillers with disabilities. McKanan contends, “This is a source of much soul searching for Camphillers” (183). 

I admit that going into the book, I was already concerned about reading about sexual abuse, given how endemic the problem is to communal living situations and care-giver and -receiver power imbalances. As the DSQ audience knows, people with disabilities are disproportionately targeted for sexual abuse, and when individuals with developmental disabilities are also the perpetrators of such abuse as in the case of Camphill, there could be much confusion and misunderstanding how to handle it. Regarding Camphillers with developmental disabilities who have been abusers, McKanan writes, “In some cases this occurred because people were not supported in finding healthy ways of expressing their sexual desires; in many cases it was exacerbated by Camphill traditions of placing unrelated adults and children in large family-style houses” (191, emphasis added). How can intentional communities inclusive of people with developmental disabilities support one another in finding healthy ways of expressing their sexual desires? This is an urgent question. I think disability studies scholars could bring a much-needed framework to communal studies for understanding the importance of disability and sexual agency. 

Throughout the book, McKanan carefully weaves rich ethnography and detailed generational genealogy with the movement’s ideals grounded in concrete context. This crux—the wrestling of social-spiritual values with real-world practice—has one more dimension especially pertinent to disability studies and activism that McKanan pays due attention: the balance between an inclusive intentional community with full participating members with disabilities, and the separation or cooperation of that community with mainstream society. Camphill communities strive to do “the hard work of creating life together” and to give each other “a genuine sense of community connection” (90, 92). Openly saying he is new to disability studies himself, McKanan continues to turn to disability studies scholars in a direct address, urging consideration and research into an underexplored disability-centered approach to existing intentional communities of members with developmental disabilities like the 80-year-old Camphill movement.

While the immediate audience for this book is anyone affiliated with or interested in the Camphill movement, in addition to a primary academic audience of communal studies scholars particularly interested in the “how” of continuity for an intentional community (hence “the Future” in the book’s title), McKanan not only challenges communal studies to seriously consider disability, but also makes a genuine appeal to students and scholars in disability studies to join the conversation. This book could be used in a disability studies graduate seminar, reading group, or by any individual who is open to questioning core tenets in disability studies and activism that can be taken for granted, such as underlying ideological assumptions around “choice” and “autonomy” in the disability self-advocacy movement. As McKanan points out, critical debate around self-advocacy and “choice” as a logic of neoliberal capitalism is not new to crip/queer theory. However, the organized and practical implementation of empowering, interdependent, and inclusive values in a world rife with dehumanization and disenfranchisement continues as an honest question that disability studies is uniquely positioned to respond to.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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