Disability Studies: A New Normal
THE temporarily able-bodied, or TABs. That’s what disability activists call those who are not physically or mentally impaired. And they like to remind them that disability is a porous state; anyone can enter or leave at any time. Live long enough and you will almost certainly enter it.
That foreboding forecast is driving growth in disability studies, a field that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. The reasons are mainly demographic: as the population ages, the number of disabled will grow — by 21 percent between 2007 and 2030, according to the Census Bureau.
At the other end of the generational spectrum are those raised after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. They are now in college or entering the work force. 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.
Universities have long studied the disabled in medical and health care curriculums. But when the first disability studies program emerged at Syracuse University in 1994, it was a radical departure from the medical model that had dominated offerings for decades and had approached disability as a deficit that needed fixing.
Like black studies, women’s studies and other liberation-movement disciplines, disability studies teaches that it is an unaccepting society that needs normalizing, not the minority group. “Disablement comes from a confluence of social factors that shape one’s identity,” says Tammy Berberi, president of the Society for Disability Studies. “It is not a distinct physical condition or a private struggle.”
WHAT YOU’LL STUDY
The Modern Language Association, which promotes the study of literature and the humanities, established disability studies in 2005 as a “division of study.” This says much about how far the field has come in the last 20 years, and about its mission.
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. “It’s more than teaching the disabled how to make an omelet,” Dr. Berberi says. The emphasis is on applying lessons from the humanities to solving the social struggle at hand.
Steven J. Taylor, who created the Syracuse program, puts it succinctly: “Disability studies starts with accepting the disability. Then it asks the question: ‘How do we equalize the playing field?’ ”
WHERE YOU CAN STUDY
Some 35 colleges and universities tackle that question through graduate and undergraduate degrees, minors and certificates. Not all get to the answer in the same way, or agree on what constitutes a successful endgame. Mariette J. Bates, academic director for the program at the City University of New York School of Professional Studies, says the differences stem from a fragmented field (“cognitive doesn’t talk to physical, and no one talks to mental”) and divergent academic approaches (theoretical versus clinical).
CUNY, Syracuse University and the University of Illinois at Chicago have the oldest and best-known programs. A complete, vetted list can be found on the web site for Syracuse’s Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies.
Because of its history and student body, CUNY takes the most applied approach. The program grew from a Kennedy Fellows program in special education and rehabilitative counseling, and 70 percent of those seeking a credential there in disability studies work at service agencies. CUNY started a four-course graduate certificate in 2004 and, because of student demand, created a master’s in 2009 and a bachelor’s — the first in the field and completely online — in 2012.
Syracuse’s program — an undergraduate minor and an advanced certificate — emerged from its school of education at a time when the university was emphasizing educational mainstreaming and dissolving its special education program. At the graduate school level, candidates from any discipline can enroll in the certificate of advanced study, or combine disability studies with law. The only free-standing Ph.D. is at the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus.
WHY STUDY IT
The rationale for the interdisciplinary approach? Jobs. Disability studies has its greatest impact when taken up with another pursuit, academic or professional, Dr. Taylor says. For doctoral students, an interdisciplinary approach increases the odds of landing an academic appointment, since there are few professorships in disability studies alone.