Disability Studies is a relatively new, interdisciplinary field focused on the social and cultural context of disability. Often compared to Women’s studies, African American, or Chicano studies, this field considers disability as a social minority group with an emphasis on the way in which disability is constructed culturally, politically, and economically, rather than the traditional emphasis on the physiology of impairment.
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Who Takes Disability Studies Courses?
Everyone who wants to learn more about the experience of disability, do research associated with disability identity, or who just wants to have a deeper understanding of disenfranchised status.
Why should you take a course in Disability Studies?
To learn more about yourself and your world, to understand the experience of a group that is often in the shadows, to appreciate the joys as well as the difficulties associated with the experience of disability, to deconstruct old assumptions, and to create room for new views and ideas.
Disability Studies Defined
Although definitions of Disability Studies differ, they each have several elements in common.
- Disability Studies is generally grounded in an empowerment model of disability, or a social constructivist view. The point of most Disability Studies courses is to deconstruct what is assumed, to make way for new ideas, new voices, and new views.
- Disability Studies uses a personal voice, a subjective voice to tell stories and explain and explore the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities. That personal voice is inclusive and by virtue of it’s existence, demonstrates the value and power of people with disabilities. That personal voice means that what people with disabilities say about disability will be integral to what we study; we won’t just focus on what people without disabilities say about disability.
- To really understand disability, we need to examine it from a variety of “truths.” What can sociology and psychology tell us about disability? What do linguists say? Anthropologists? How do policy makers, analysts, and lawyers view disability? What can educators, rehabilitation specialists, and social workers teach us? How do nurses, doctors, and therapists support an understanding of disability? Typically, only one of these views has been considered at a time, in a specific course of study.
- Finally, Disability Studies is its own “thing.” There are textbooks for Disability Studies courses. These texts are relatively new, published mostly beginning in the 1980’s. There are books written by people with disabilities about their own experiences. There are books that chronicle the disability rights movement; there are professional organizations and conferences that focus on Disability Studies as its own discipline. There are a few, although not many, university degrees offered in Disability Studies.
Disability Studies is based on a social constructivist view, a model that says people with disabilities are first, and foremost, people (not body parts, not problems to be solved, not objects, and not pathetic) with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. This model supports the viewpoints, ideas, and experiences of the people who get up everyday and deal with their disability in this culture as the experts.
Here is one commonly accepted definition, posed by Simi Linton in 1993:
“Disability Studies reframes the study of disability by focusing on it as a social phenomenon, social construct, metaphor, and culture utilizing a minority group model. It examines ideas related to disability in all forms of cultural representations throughout history, and examines the policies and practices of all societies to understand the social, rather than the physical or psychological, determinants of the experience of disability. Disability Studies both emanates from and supports the Disability Rights Movement, which advocates for civil rights and self-determination. This focus shifts the emphasis from a prevention/treatment/remediation paradigm, to a social/cultural/political paradigm. This shift does not signify a denial of the presence of impairments, nor a rejection of the utility of intervention and treatment. Instead, Disability Studies has been developed to disentangle impairments from the myth, ideology, and stigma that influence social interaction and social policy. The scholarship challenges the idea that the economic and social statuses and the assigned roles of people with disabilities are inevitable outcomes of their condition.”