A passion for furthering inclusivity

By

Ashley Richards

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Rebecca Monteleone has always looked out for others by making sure they felt included. As young as 6 years old, she was involved in inclusive theater companies, featuring people of all different abilities. But she soon noticed some of her friends were treated differently.

“It became clear to me that my friends with disabilities were living different lives than I was,” said Monteleone. “They were getting fewer opportunities and encouragement to pursue the same types of things that I was pursuing, and that made me want to research the social ideas around disability, how they get constructed and who gets written out of certain narratives.”

That led her to pursue disability studies. Monteleone earned a Bachelor of Arts in disability studies from Ohio State University, and a Master of Arts in intellectual and developmental disability from the University of Kent, Canterbury. But something was missing. How could technology serve the needs and desires of disabled people?

So she came to the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU for her PhD in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology (HSD).

“I was drawn to the HSD program because it exposed a way to look at things I hadn't encountered before. When I came into the program, I was thinking on a pragmatic level, about how to do individual work with individual people to make technologies more accessible to a single person. But the HSD program has allowed me to look at that from the micro and macro levels simultaneously, and think about pragmatic, theoretical and sociological implications all at once.”

Her involvement in the disability community extends outside the classroom. Monteleone is a member of the directing team at Detour Company Theatre, a theatrical company composed of artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She has worked with Arizona Employment First, the Arizona Developmental Disability Planning Council and Best Buddies International. She is also a part of Dis/Ability Matters Now at ASU, a graduate student organization advocating for inclusive and accessible university practices.

Monteleone will continue her work in disability studies as an assistant professor at the University of Toledo. One of her goals is to start a lab composed of traditional researchers and community members with intellectual disabilities, all equal members who are designing projects and collecting data together. She also wants to continue her involvement in the arts by running creative storytelling workshops, which would give people with disabilities the opportunity to tell their own stories.

She has spent her life supporting others, and she has gotten that same support in return from ASU. 

“ASU is not the place I expected it to be, and I'm so glad I’m here. It’s a different environment than any other university I've been a part of before, especially in (the School for the Future of Innovation in Society). I’ve had so much confidence instilled in me to pursue the things that I felt were important. I was always challenged to make my work better, but I was never challenged that it wasn't worth pursuing. That’s the kind of support that you dream of as an academic.”

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I've always identified as a disability studies scholar, so I came here intending to do disability studies and fly under the radar in science and technology studies. But after my first year doing coursework in the HSD program, it became clear to me that disability studies and science and technology studies could benefit from one another. For example, I was adhering to this very rigid idea of the social construction of disability and identity, which didn't include understanding the ways technology influences us and how we influence technology. By not attending to those things, my research was lacking and not doing a service to people. Science and technology studies have now become a huge part of my work and make it unique in the disability studies field.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My primary adviser and the chair of my dissertation committee is Dr. Mary Margaret Fonow in the gender studies department, and she has been an absolute gold mine of information, including how to navigate an academic career. She was able to walk me through what I needed to do before I finished graduate school, what I needed to do to get on the job market and how to negotiate a job offer. As someone who came from a background where I did not know many people with PhDs, that kind of professional development help was crucial for me.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Talk to everybody. I've connected with people, resources, scholarships and work that I would never have been familiar with if I hadn't stretched myself outside my comfort zone. During my first semester at ASU, I set up 15-minute meetings with anyone who accepted. Some of them were absolute game-changers. Those people would introduce me to other people, and my network would grow and grow. By the time I was finishing up, I had this incredible community of support. (The School for the Future of Innovation in Society) and ASU have really strong communities, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.  

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: The courtyard inside the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. It's really nice, and the air always feels good in there. I also love the Design Library. I spend a ton of time there. It’s my hideaway spot when I want to buckle down and get work done.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would want to change how resources and support are allocated to people with intellectual disabilities. There are infrastructural problems. Right now, people are often shoveled into nursing homes or institutional living right after leaving high school. They don’t have control over choosing their support workers. They don’t have access to certain resources or reliable transportation. Moving toward a system where people are given their own pot of money that they can allocate how they choose, whether that's hiring their own support people, starting their own business or using that money for transportation, would really disrupt these segregated and exclusionary systems. There would be more flexibility and customizability for people to live the kinds of lives that they want to live, as opposed to the lives that others in power determine for them.