Faculty Spotlight: Personal Odyssey Made Him View Disability Differently

Christopher Krentz, associate professor of English

University of Virginia associate professor Christopher Krentz is a child of the 1970s. This proved helpful when, at the age of 9, he was able to hide his hearing aids behind a scruffy hair style – David Cassidy meets Mick Jagger.

Just wanting to fit in, Krentz only told teachers and close friends that he had, for reasons doctors couldn’t quite pinpoint, started to lose his hearing.

But when he and his family moved from St. Louis to Chicago in the 1980s, Krentz stopped trying to be seen as normal. Taking advantage of new surroundings, he let go of his inhibitions and no longer tried to conceal his aids.

Quickly, he discovered that the pressure to “pass” he sensed in elementary school was less of a factor in high school  – but that’s not to say Krentz had an easy go of things. Back then, television shows and movies weren’t routinely captioned, and e-mail and texting didn’t exist..

“I still viewed my increasing deafness as an unfortunate loss and struggled to envision a future for myself,” he said.

Krentz, though, would persevere.

Krentz’ new book explores how fiction in English from the Global South often prominently includes disability. (Photo by Dan Addison / University Communications)

Always an excellent student – with a passion for reading, writing, art, animals and sports – he gained admittance to Yale University and graduated summa cum laude in 1989.

But the real turning point for him occurred just after graduation, when he found work at Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C. There, he learned American Sign Language, met deaf role models and made deaf friends.

“It was tremendously empowering to meet others like myself and to learn a visual language,” Krentz said. “I had always thought I was an introvert, but learned I have an extrovert’s nature, too. I also learned that the American signing Deaf community has a rich culture – including a fascinating storytelling tradition and poetry in ASL – and history.

It was like stumbling upon a treasure. The experience opened up new opportunities for me not only personally, but also intellectually, as I realized people often overlooked and deemed unimportant have compelling stories.”“It was like stumbling upon a treasure. The experience opened up new opportunities for me not only personally, but also intellectually, as I realized people often overlooked and deemed unimportant have compelling stories.”

Krentz went on to earn his master’s and a Ph.D. in English from UVA before embarking on an academic career at the University. He directs the Disability Studies Initiative, a working group of nine faculty members doing disability-related teaching and research across Grounds. The group approaches disability less as a pathology than as a social, cultural and political identity. 

“My personal odyssey made me realize that the meaning of identity – ‘disability’ in my case – often depends not just on biology, but also on the social context, something I’ve explored in my teaching and scholarship,” Krentz said.

Associate professor Christopher Krentz participates in an American Sign Language lunch in the McIntire Amphitheater. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak / University Communications)

This week, Krentz, who holds a joint appointment between the English Department and the American Sign Language Program, debuts his new book, “Elusive Kinship” (Temple University Press). Disability is often overlooked in literature, he noted. In the book, he explores how fiction in English from the Global South often prominently includes disability, with celebrated authors like Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie deploying disability to do important cultural work.

“It’s an outgrowth of my earlier work on deafness in 19th-century literature, and the emergence of deaf people writing in English,” Krentz said. “Here I’m taking on a much broader scope. There was a lot to learn, and I tried to emphasize that I see this book as just advancing an important conversation, not in giving a final word in any way.”

UVA Today caught up with Krentz to learn more about his journey, his academic career and the current state of accessibility in today’s society.

Q. What have been some of the challenges or obstacles you’ve faced as a result of your hearing loss – both growing up and in your professional career?

A. I’ve encountered predictable barriers, such as lack of access, feeling like an outsider, and occasional prejudice, usually based on ignorance or fear. One central challenge has been just figuring out who I am and how best to advocate for myself. This difficulty was complicated by my own hearing steadily fading, by new environments around me, by new technology often appearing, and new laws, too, like the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was first passed the year after I graduated from college. Consistent support from family, mentors, allies and friends has made a huge difference and really helped me. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.

Q. What went into your decision to make disability studies a focus of your academic career?

A. My early scholarship was on deafness in 19th-century American literature. The academic disability studies community showed the most interest in what I was doing. They made me feel welcome and appreciated. I’ve learned that deaf people and disabled people generally have tremendous variety, but share in common a desire for access (in the broadest sense) and to be accepted, to be comfortable in our own skins.

Q. How do you think your disability informs your scholarship?

A. My own experience taught me that context shapes the meaning of disability, and indeed of all difference – a liberating insight. I often study representation and social context. I am most drawn to scholarship that has a real-world activist component, and disability studies has that. I hope through my work I can do a little to make the world a more hospitable place. 

Q. In terms of accessibility, what kinds of progress have been made in the Deaf community over the last 10 years?

A. In the last 10 years there has been huge growth in technology that helps with accessibility (videophones, captioning, social media, programs like Zoom and Facetime, and the Web, in addition to e-mail and texting). In addition, sign language interpreter services, in many parts of the country anyway, have become more professionalized and easier to obtain.   

Q. Are there any other thoughts you’d like to add?

A. In disability studies, we find approaching a lot of pressing topics with a disability lens yields new insights: on bioethics; on architecture and the built environment; on literature, philosophy and media; on technology; on education; and even on employment (half of deaf adults in Virginia are unemployed or underemployed), war and climate change. Many fields can benefit from a disability lens. Over a half of a billion people worldwide are disabled, so it’s not a tiny population.