Spotlight on Alums: Disability Rights Advocate, Economist, and Author Allison Thompkins ’04

Photograph of Allison Thompkins, a Black woman with glasses in a purple sweater. She is smiling.

Economist, author, and disability rights advocate Allison Thompkins ’04 earned a PhD in economics from MIT after graduating from Scripps with a major in mathematical economics. In the following three and a half years, she worked as an economic researcher at Mathematica, a research and data analytics consultancy that aims to improve public well-being.

“Economic analysis can be used to improve people’s lives in so many ways,” Thompkins says. “It tells us what social programs lead to greater independence, success, and self-determination. People often don’t realize how much can be quantified.” This crucial window of insight allows experts to form conclusions about the best ways to improve people’s well-being, which influences policy decisions at all levels. “For instance, we understand the value of women’s colleges, the importance of early education, and the positive relationship between studying music and academic success because of economic analysis. Economic analysis produces the information we need to make decisions that reflect our values as individuals and as a society.”

As a graduate student conducting economic research at MIT, Thompkins focused on disability advocacy. “Just as we need advocates who march in the streets and engage in civil disobedience, we also need advocates who add to the canon of knowledge so the community knows what policies and programs to push for,” Thompkins says. “Toward that end, I knew that the main reason I wanted to be an economist was to improve the economic outcomes and inclusion of the disability community. I set out to correct the exclusion of people with disabilities from many theories I was learning by choosing topics to reflect the tenets of the Independent Living Movement model of disability.” The Independent Living Movement advocates that people with disabilities are entitled to the same rights and choices as people without disabilities.

Thompkins focused her advocacy efforts beyond her research as well. “Advocacy within academia also involves diversifying the types of people who matriculate through institutions of higher education and ensuring that the policies adopted by universities and colleges are supportive of the disability community,” she says. “Whenever possible, I mentored disabled college and graduate students to help increase the graduation rates of people with disabilities and thereby increase the number of disabled leaders who will create change in their unique  way.”

After three and a half years of work as a researcher, Thompkins stepped back from full-time work to focus on her health after complications related to cerebral palsy necessitated her retirement. After stepping back, she says, “I dove deeper into my love of studying and practicing spirituality, which led me to the work I’m doing today: teaching inclusive spirituality.”

The result of this new focus was Thompkins’ book, Spirituality Is for Every Body: 8 Accessible, Inclusive Ways to Connect with the Divine When Living with Disability, published in February 2024. The book aims to make spirituality more accessible to the disabled community.

Thompkins’ deepened study of spirituality, which involved modifying spiritual practices to meet her own needs, allowed her to improve her health—and she was able to share what she had learned with her friends with disabilities. The inspiration for her book stemmed from “witnessing the increased confidence and joy my friends experienced as a result of the modified spiritual practices I shared with them,” Thompkins says. “I felt compelled to make spirituality and spiritual practices accessible to anyone.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic began, Thompkins realized that many people with disabilities of all types might benefit from her advice on how to make spiritual practices more accessible. “The biggest challenge was simply the physicality of writing a book,” Thompkins says. “Typing is physically painful for me and takes a great deal of concentration and effort. As someone who types with one finger and the assistance of eye gaze technology, typing is an extremely slow process. Using a high level of energy and effort for the amount of time required to write an entire book necessitated a great deal of fortitude.”

In addition to Thompkins’ goal of helping people with disabilities find accessible ways to engage with spirituality, she also hopes to increase the inclusivity of spirituality by serving as a resource to anyone seeking to be more inclusive of those with the lived experience of disability. “So many within the disability community are curious about—and want to be involved in—spirituality but find that much of the rhetoric and discourse in spiritual circles either bypass the disability experience all together or only speak about disability in the familiar tropes and platitudes found in larger society,” she says.

Thompkins says Scripps College was “absolutely pivotal” in shaping her postgraduate work. “I arrived at Scripps knowing that I enjoyed economics, but I firmly believed that my way to improve society was by being a disability rights attorney,” she says. However, the network of resources and collaborative atmosphere of Scripps led her to discover that another path suited her better: “I graduated knowing that I was meant to be an economist and that I could effect change by combining economic theory with my mathematical skills and lived experience of disability.”

While studying at Scripps, Thompkins discovered her academic passions. “The research projects that I engaged in during my undergraduate years revealed my love of research. The support and encouragement I received from Scripps professors showed me that there was a demand for the knowledge that my research generated.”

In addition to those crucial realizations, Thompkins graduated Scripps with a set of hard skills that have served her throughout her endeavors. “I wrote many research papers and sought opportunities to do independent research projects with professors. As a result, by the time I graduated from Scripps, I was quite adept at developing research questions and agendas, coding econometric software so that I could answer those questions, working with a team, presenting my findings, and writing clearly and effectively. I developed the core skills I needed throughout graduate school and my work as a researcher at Scripps.”

Once her health necessitated taking a step back, Thompkins was ready to adapt. “When the time came to transition into my focus on expanding inclusivity within spirituality, I drew upon my writing and public speaking skills, both of which I honed at Scripps.”