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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Cultivating Disability Studies: A Divergent Approach to Disability Rights

Ashton Rosin

Equality Now America for All 2010 protest signThis week the New York Times directed the spotlight to the field of Disability Studies, the academic lens used to understand the complexities of disability, by publishing “Disability Studies: A New Normal”. The title alone suggests not only a shift in societal attitudes regarding the disability community, but the increasingly common field of study found in course catalogs at universities across the nation.

The article sheds light on the experiences of students who have delved into the academic field of disability studies, illustrating their interest in the field, the history of the academic movement, and the tangible implications of studying disability in the classroom. In doing so, the New York Times has successfully garnered attention for the growing field of study and has illuminated opportunities for the growth of the disability rights movement.

The drive towards disability studies is founded in many different avenues; the personal connection to disability, the infatuation with social issues, and ultimately the recognition of the inevitability of disability, as “disability is a porous state; anyone can enter or leave at any time. Live long enough and you will almost certainly enter it”. Embracing the notion that the body evolves, that the able body is truly a temporarily able body makes the study of disability relevant for all people regardless of class, race, ethnicity, or religion. This recognition, coupled with the aging of the baby boomers, has prompted greater awareness of disability and the consequential growth of the field of disability studies. 

Beyond the demographic shift catalyzed by the aging of the U.S. population, we can now recognize a generation of youth that has grown up with an ADA-driven ideology. With the passage of the ADA 23 years ago, the overwhelming majority of those in university and entering the workforce today have lived their lives entirely in a society governed by a rights-based model of disability. This generation knows sidewalks with accessible curbs, interpreters in classrooms, and the celebration of the productive lives of people with disabilities. These measures are mundane, ordinary, and expected as the youth know nothing different, “they are educated, perhaps without even realizing it, in the politics and realities of disability, having sat in the same classrooms in a more accessible society.” Moreover, these individuals who are steered by a subconscious ideology of empowering people with disabilities to live independently will become the leaders of organizations across disciplines. Disability studies will therefore become an increasingly compelling and celebrated field of academia because these individuals will lead with an inherent tendency towards the promotion of the rights of people with disabilities.

Although disability was historically commonplace in mental and healthcare curriculums at universities, the authentic field of disability studies did not exist just 20 years ago. The birth of a disability studies program at Syracuse University in 1994 demonstrated a break from the medical model of disability that had seeped into realms of education. This transition represented the introduction of the social model of disability as a reaction to the medical model, advancing the notion that society needs normalizing to embrace the complexities of the life of a person with a disability rather than encouraging the overcoming of disability.

This ideology coupled with the increasingly prominent rights based rhetoric used to address the civil rights of people with disabilities has been manifested in academia as an interdisciplinary field. Just as disability is not confined to a certain gender, race, or ethnicity, disability crosses lines of academic disciplines. In order to garner the most effective understanding of the complexities of disability, it is necessary to address disability issues from social, economic, psychological, and historical perspectives. “Through courses in disability history, theory, legislation, policy, ethics and the arts, students are taught to think critically about the “lived lives” of the disabled, and to work to improve quality of life and to advocate for civil rights.”

This cross discipline approach will shape individuals who are equipped to introduce disability issues into a multitude of professions, a different approach to permeating society with disability conscious individuals. Graduates of disability studies develop careers in architecture and engineering to build accessible structures, become policy associates to progress the movement, proponents of the arts to flourish expression of people with disabilities, and work in education and human services like social work, health policy, or rehabilitative medicine.

Although the more than 35 disability studies programs across the U.S. and Canada employ different approaches to disability immersion, students are given the opportunity to achieve undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degrees. Most programs offer minors, specializations, or the ability to emphasize in disability with clinical or instructional classes, deaf studies, education, or health classes. CUNY, Syracuse University and the University of Illinois at Chicago have the oldest and best-known programs, however the only free-standing Ph.D. is at the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus. You can find a complete list of all universities that offer disability studies programs below.

The uniqueness of this academic realm is enhanced by the fact that students are given the opportunity to learn from and with people with disabilities who are able to offer a nuanced and genuine perspective infused with real life experiences. “Forty percent of the students in the U.I.C. master’s, minor and certificate programs are disabled; about 60 percent of those enrolled in CUNY’s bachelor’s program have a disability or a disabled child”. In a way this approach is reflective of the “nothing about us, without us” ideology, as the best way to learn is to learn with and alongside people who have lived it.

Steven J. Taylor, the creator of the Syracuse program, regards the premise of disability studies as the accepting of disability to equalize the playing field. Today’s disability studies programs therefore propel the student to immerse his or her self in a forward looking model of disability, driven by notions of empowerment. Ideally, this type of immersive learning will translate into action within the disability field or will grant the student the confident knowledge to introduce issues of disability into other realms like transportation, finance, and education.

As a disability studies student myself, I can personally attest to the immersive learning experience that has cultivated my commitment to the field of disability from an impassioned academic angle as well as a personal one. I delved into a field of study like disability because I was drawn to the complex issues that arise when attempting to understand the human condition from angles like accessibility issues, the stigma attached to disability, and the rich history of advocacy that is tied to the community. I saw a ripe opportunity in the field of international development to introduce concerns of disability, as this community is often overlooked internationally. The interactive learning space of disability studies through mediums of classes, internship opportunities, and self initiated research projects, has allowed my dedication to the disability rights movement to flourish and has helped me to realize my future goal of acting as a disability consultant for international organizations to ensure the implementation of accessibility and employment opportunities for people with disabilities abroad.

Read more information about the complete list of disability studies programs offered at these institutions.

Institutions that house disability studies programs:

  • California Baptist University
  • Chapman University
  • College of Staten Island
  • City University of New York
  • Eastern Washington University
  • Gallaudet University
  • Hofstra University
  • Kent State University
  • Miami University
  • National-Louis University
  • Northern Arizona University
  • Ohio State University
  • Pacific University
  • Ryerson University
  • Shippensburg University
  • Stony Brook University
  • Syracuse University
  • Temple University
  • University at Buffalo
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Georgia – Athens
  • University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
  • University of Illinois at Chicago
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Maine
  • University of Manitoba
  • University of Massachusetts – Lowell
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Texas at Arlington
  • University of Toledo
  • University of Utah
  • University of Washington
  • University of Winnipeg and Red River College
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • University of Wyoming
  • York University