A powerful transformation

When Disability Studies moved into the School for Cultural and Social Transformation (nicknamed Transform), there were 21 declared disability studies minors at the U. Most of those students were in the College of Health, specifically speech and hearing science majors. Today, after just one year in the school, there are 44 declared disability studies minors.

Sierra Bruggink graduating with a major in gender studies and a minor in disability studies, her service dog, Gus, and Kathryn Bond Stockton, Dean of Transform.

Sierra Bruggink graduating with a major in gender studies and a minor in disability studies, her service dog, Gus, and Kathryn Bond Stockton, dean of Transform.

“We have more than doubled the number of minors in just one year, and we have more students that are majoring outside of health in areas like transform, social sciences, humanities and design,” said Jen Wozab, academic advisor in the school.

The evolution of Disability Studies at the U goes back to 2006, when university leaders wanted to encourage more research and teaching across disciplines. The first director of Disability Studies, Cathy Chambless, helped launch a graduate certificate in 2008 and eventually an undergraduate minor in 2010. She and her assistant director, Pollie Price, also created and taught a Disability Studies core course that draws students from a range of colleges.

“Up until 2016, Disability Studies was supported by people in a variety of departments and disciplines at the U, but it had no real institutional home,” said Angela Smith, director of the Disability Studies Initiative. “We had a College of Humanities webpage, a core course located in the College of Social and Behavioral Science and funding from the College of Health.”

When Chambless retired in 2016, there was nobody to take over her work and the graduate certificate was suspended.

“It seemed like we might lose Disability Studies at the U, just as the field was gaining unprecedented national visibility and recognition,” said Smith. “Thanks to the work of Dr. Chambless, Dr. Price, Dr. Lorie Richards and Dr. Hank Liese, it was saved. They brought a proposal to Dr. Kathryn Bond Stockton, the dean for Transform, that Disability Studies find an institutional home there, alongside the Divisions of Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies. Dr. Stockton worked tirelessly to make this transition possible, and we had our first year of Disability Studies in the new school during the 2018-19 school year.”

Stockton feels this is only the beginning of a new era of critical Disability Studies at the U, focusing on disability-as-diversity and the structural barriers that she says ableism spawns at every turn.

“I, and so many others at the U feel so primed to advance our own ever-growing education on this essential front,” said Stockton. “Terrific people were running this program and giving so much of themselves in the process, but they retired or were newly needed by their departments. Our new goal became to re-gather Disability Studies, centralize its energies, and tether it to two strong scholars who are working in this cutting-edge field: Angela Smith and Lezlie Frye, assistant professor of Gender Studies. These two thinkers and dedicated teachers are showing the centrality of Disability Studies to the scholarship surrounding race, gender, and sexuality.”

The minor is part of a broader Disability Studies initiative at the U. Smith said the initiative seeks to connect researchers on disability topics from across campus, create disability-centered committees and improve access for everyone on campus.

“Disability Studies goes far beyond the medical context we usually impose on disability,” said Smith. “It explores the ways oppressions of various minority groups intersect, advocates for social changes to enable greater access to all spaces for all peoples, and examines and celebrates the stories, art and political work of disabled people. It’s a way to learn about the complex historical and social factors that shape our understanding of disability.”

Wozab said since the minor moved into Transform, she’s noticed students seeing the minor as a way to create access, promote awareness and make social change in their fields of study.

“It’s less health-related now and more students are understanding that the disability studies minor and our programs can complement any major and even allow for direct application of material,” said Wozab. “I always tell students that our programs teach you to look at your work from a different lens, so you ask questions, consider solutions and relate to your community in a different, more meaningful way.”

Disability studies minors take two required courses and 12 credits of electives. They can choose electives from all over campus including courses in ASL gerontology, family and consumer studies, gender studies and parks, recreation and tourism.

“Disability is an intrinsic part of the human experience and the disability studies minor can be extremely valuable to students in almost any career field,” said Smith. “Some of our minors want to be advocates and activists working for social change and some simply want to better understand past and current disability politics and culture.”

Smith said they hope to continue to grow the minor, and in the future will consider both re-opening the graduate certificate in disability studies and creating a disability studies major.

You can find more information on Disability Studies here.