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MIT News: Feature story

Divine economics

For Allison V. Thompkins, PhD ’11, economics and spirituality are complementary pursuits, shaped by an expansive understanding of disability.

February 28, 2024
Allison V. Thompkins, PhD ’11,
Melissa Ortendahl

Allison V. Thompkins, PhD ’11, used to spend her days steeped in statistical analysis, digging into economic data to understand how the world works. These days, you’re more likely to find her writing about how to modify prayer or meditation practices to make them more accessible for people with disabilities.

From the outside, the shift from economic policy research to a career writing and teaching about spirituality might seem like a substantial one. But for Thompkins, the instincts behind both pursuits flow from the same place.

“From my perspective, the main connecting thread of economics and spirituality is their power to improve the world,” she says.

That drive to transform the world around her into a more equitable and just place has been with Thompkins for as long as she can remember. As a kid living with cerebral palsy, she was involved in disability advocacy from a young age. At age six, she was interviewed by PBS about her love for Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who fought for people’s rights, and as a nine-year-old she wrote an essay about the need for disability representation in radio programming.

As an adult, that same drive led her to MIT to study under labor economists David Autor and Joshua Angrist, both of whom are Ford professors of economics. She was one of the first people with cerebral palsy and the first power-chair user to earn a PhD from the Institute. While working on her dissertation, which focused on disability policy, she also began consulting for the World Bank. Upon graduating, she found work in economic policy at the research firm Mathematica. 

When her health required that she take a step back from full-time work, she decided to share her growing spiritual practice, first on her blog and then in the form of a book, Spirituality Is for Every Body: 8 Accessible, Inclusive Ways to Connect with the Divine When Living with Disability, which was published in February.

“People are most likely more accustomed to thinking about the role of spirituality or the Divine when speaking about professions such as singing or painting or writing poetry, rather than professions that are data driven … [But] for me, the goal of practicing economics was always to improve the world,” she says. The goal of making life better for others—not just oneself—is, in her view, also “the most important reason to engage in spirituality.”

Thompkins worked as an intern to Senator John Kerry during graduate school. This group shot captures the senator and her fellow interns.
Thompkins prepares for a run during an MIT Snowriders ski trip.

Thompkins has always looked for meaningful patterns where others might see only randomness and chance. As an economist, she takes unruly piles of numbers and transforms them into useful data that can inform things like microlending programs for people living with disabilities in India. As a spiritual seeker, she’s adopted the perspective that everything happens for a reason.

All of this has imbued her life with a deep sense of purpose, whether she’s working on disability policy or writing about meditation.

“Love and beauty—I know you don’t always hear those [words] when discussing economics,” she says with a smile on a Zoom call. “But whatever I do, I seek to allow the love and the light that I have to shine through whatever thing I choose.”

The road to economics

Thompkins’s experiences as a youth advocate set her up to dream big about what she might accomplish on behalf of the disabled community. Her hope as a teenager had been to go to law school and become a disability rights attorney—that is, until she surprised herself by falling in love with an economics course in high school. She majored in mathematical economics at Scripps College. And by the time she arrived on MIT’s campus for grad school, she had become enthusiastic about the possibility of using economics as a tool for disability justice.

Angrist, a Nobel Prize winner who served as one of Thompkins’s thesis advisors, wrote one of the early papers analyzing the Americans with Disabilities Act and concluded that it had in many ways been counterproductive. He and his coauthor, fellow MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu, found that the ADA increased costs for employers and wound up having a negative effect on employment of disabled workers. Thompkins built on their research, writing the first two papers analyzing the long-term impact of the ADA. Both have been cited often.

She also wrote a report on disability policy in India for the World Bank and then conducted more sophisticated econometric analysis, using the same World Bank data, of an Indian program designed to give assistance to disabled workers and working-age disabled people. That research became a chapter of her PhD thesis and was later published in Applied Economics and Finance. Angrist, who remembers Thompkins as a “hardworking and tenacious student,” says that “Allison’s paper at the time was one of the few to look at labor market effects of disability policy in that part of the world.”

“Even to hold my neck in one position is kind of like mountain climbing would be for some other people.”

The Indian program was unique at the time because “mainstream microlending programs systematically excluded people with disabilities from receiving loans,” Thompkins says. After digging into the data, she realized that many of the disabled people who received microloans were not on schedule to repay them on time because they used the loans not to expand a business but to go to secondary school, which she calls “a luxury that many disabled people in rural India do not get.” But her analysis concluded that researchers needed longer-term data to determine the loans’ ultimate impact on these participants’ economic outcomes. In other words, it wasn’t fair to assume that just because disabled people weren’t using the microloans in the exact way that the lenders had expected, the investment was wasted.  

Thompkins earned a reputation at MIT for her warmth and excitement about her work. “She’s always very joyful and was really passionate about what she was doing, and just exuded positivity and enthusiasm,” says Autor, who also served as her thesis advisor. Kathleen Monagle, associate dean and director of disability and access services, adds that she’s also generous with her time and energy. Thompkins helped author a brochure for MIT on best practices for communicating with people with a range of disabilities—which Monagle’s office still uses—and has served as a mentor to numerous students who have come through the office over the years.

After earning her PhD, Thompkins became a research economist at Mathematica, where she conducted research on employment among people with disabilities, among other topics. Now, though she no longer works full time as an economist, she still takes on consulting gigs occasionally.

A deepening spiritual practice

Though stepping back from work for health reasons wasn’t what she would’ve planned for herself, the shift cleared the way for Thompkins to begin writing more about something else that had become important to her: the pursuit of a spiritual life that could sustain her in the face of challenging circumstances. She grew up going to church with her family, started meditating at age eight, and began modifying her meditation practice to fit her abilities in her teens. As an adult, she has continued to expand her understanding of spirituality through extensive reading. Yet her personal experiences, as well as her relationships with others in the disability community, had long made her aware of the barriers to participating in spiritual life for many people with disabilities. While practices like reading a book or praying quietly might seem almost effortless to some, they can be incredibly challenging for others, she notes.

“Even to hold my neck in one position is kind of like mountain climbing would be for some other people,” she says. (In her book, she notes that “researchers have estimated that someone with cerebral palsy uses three to five times more energy than someone without a disability.”)

Having modified spiritual practices to fit her own needs and physical abilities, Thompkins is well suited to guide other people with disabilities on that journey, and to equip spiritual leaders of all abilities looking to include them in their spiritual communities. 

That’s one of the main thrusts of her book. In each chapter, she shares anecdotes about her life, from her experience getting snubbed for a role in her school play and later landing a TV acting role to the arduous but ultimately rewarding process of hunting for a power-chair-accessible apartment. At the end of each chapter, she shares spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and service for readers to try out themselves. But her book differs from other explorations of spirituality in that she includes extensive modification guidelines based on different physical abilities.

President Susan Hockfield presents Thompkins with her PhD diploma in 2011.

“So many within the disability community are curious about, and want to be involved in, spirituality,” she says, “but find that much of the rhetoric and discourse in spiritual circles either bypasses the disability experience altogether or only speaks about disability in the familiar tropes and platitudes found in larger society. My hope is that my book helps to remedy this by providing a foundation and framework for how to openly, honestly, and astutely discuss disability through a spiritual lens while providing full access to spiritual practices that can sometimes exclude disabled people.”

Thompkins kept her spiritual life to herself when she was a student, but as she faced new physical challenges, she found herself needing to ask for more help when pursuing the spiritual practices that are important to her. This in turn led to a new openness in talking about how central spirituality is to her life. “My family, caregivers, and friends who help me engage in spirituality are curious about what I’m doing and often ask me questions. Thus, I found that as my physical abilities have changed, I’ve become more of a spiritual teacher in my day-to-day life,” she says.

The role of teacher isn’t one she sought out. But as someone who has a deep sense that the universe is more filled with purpose than with coincidence, she’s inclined to accept the role that’s been placed in front of her.

“Both spirituality and economics enable me to achieve my ultimate goal of doing my part to transform the world for the better,” she says.

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