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Frequently Asked Questions

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1.    What is Disability Studies (DS)?

DS is the study of disabled people and groups in society. It approaches disability as diversity and disabled people as contributing members of society.  

2.    What are the educational goals of the Disability Studies program?

There are three primary curriculum goals.

  1. Universal Access: When we make society accessible to one diverse group we enhance access for other diverse groups.
  2. Disability as Diversity: Disabled people help make up the diverse tapestry of communities. The disability community and people with disabiliIntersectionality: We all have multiple characteristics that provide identity and meaning to life and Disability is one of those characteristics from which valuable life experiences are drawn.

3.  What is the relationship between DS and Disability Support offices?

Disability Support offices are mandated to ensure that students with documented disabilities receive reasonable accommodation and support for their education. About 10-25% of students with disabilities utilize these supports.

4.  Is person-first terminology the correct language in referring to disability?

Person-first language (e.g. person with a disability) arose a few decades ago to show that people were not defined by their disabilities and to reduce stigma. It also provided a template that helped reduce the use of other terms that were considered derogatory (e.g. hopeless cripple, retard, crazy person). In recent years, some Disability activists and scholars have adopted disability-first language (e.g. disabled person) that reflects disability as a positive identity.

5.  Doesn't disability-first terminology return to language that has marginalized people with disabilities?

Some say yes it does and that we should avoid using it. In contrast, disability-first proponents argue that person-first language has negative connotations relative to diversity. Just as people use terms such as woman vs. person with femaleness, African American vs. person with blackness, and gay/ lesbian vs. person with gayness in a diversity context, they argue for terms such a disabled person vs. person with a disability.

6.  Can you explain what people mean when they refer to "models of disability?"Disability Studies commonly conceptualizes disability according to three models.

  • Moral Model: Ancient in origins, disability is defined negatively with explanations such as it is out of harmony with nature, a sign that someone sinned, or a manifestation of God's displeasure. The moral model has been used for millennia to exclude, marginalize, or kill people with disabilities.
  • Medical Model: With industrialization and modernization, disability is viewed as an individual pathology to be treated, cured, or taken care of. They are worthy poor who are expected to rely on others to make decisions and provide support.
  • Social/ Diversity Model: Disability is a characteristic some people live with who contribute to the diverse tapestry of society. The primary problems facing people are social and societal (e.g., limited access, discrimination) rather than a result of individual pathologies.

7.  I want to work professionally helping people with disabilities. Doesn't the medical model define medical professionals such as doctors, occupational therapists, nurses, and social workers as being against the social model?

That is a common misconception. Disability scholars condemn the medical model because it takes control, presumes to fix people, views disability as an internal deficiency, and often segregates them from non-disabled people. The best medical, health, and human service providers recognize that they work within systems that require actions like diagnoses and treatment plans, BUT they work in partnership with disabled people to maximize their self-determination, and they recognize the importance of removing external barriers.

8.    How does Disability Studies refer to disability?

There are many discussions and debates about this, and person-first language is a good example of current discussions. One conceptualization that is noteworthy is to think of three elements of disability.

  • People's impairments refer to internal characteristics that affect how people function.
  • People's disabilities arise when an individual impairment affects a person's functioning in society and is a result of the interaction between personal and environmental factors.
  • Someone who is a Disabled person (big D-Disabled) is referring to Disability identity and culture. People who are deaf have a hearing impairment, and people who are hearing impaired often experience disability because of communication and other barriers. Within Deaf Culture, Deaf people have a strong and proud identity.

9.   How does Disability Studies relate to professional programs such as social work, occupational therapy and nursing?

Disability Studies teaches students about the diversity and contributions of disabled persons in social and societal contexts. It is an excellent way to prepare students for their careers, and professional programs often strongly encourage students to take DS courses because DS provides a diversity and human rights foundation to guide people within professions.  

10. Won't I get the same type of education in my professional program as I will in DS courses?

Diversity programs such as Disability Studies, Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies prepare people to live and work in diverse societies and to strive for equality and social justice. Professional programs are typically skill based and teach how to provide services to people with problems.

11.  It sounds like Disability Studies will not benefit me in finding a job because it does not teach me how to work with people with disabilities. Is this true?

Interestingly, we have found the opposite. Because, in part, DS programs are new and education about the social model of disability is so uncommon, many of our Disability Studies graduates report significantly increased marketability in the job market because they understand and apply a human rights perspective to disability and disabled people in all their roles in society; including consumers, colleagues, friends, and sometimes bosses.  

12. How does Disability Studies compare to other Diversity programs?

Disability Studies is much newer and is mostly a 21st Century development. It arose from the Disability Rights movement of the 1980s-90s and owes its diversity approach to other diversity programs such as ethnic and traditional women's studies.  

13. How does Disability Studies relate to LGBTQ+ Studies?

They share much in common. Historically, disabled and LGBTQ+ people have been raised in families and communities that have seen them as pathological and without role models. Disability and LGBTQ+ cross all diversities and societies and continue to be among the most oppressed and devalued groups globally. Activists and scholars from both groups have shared common interests to work for inclusion and rights. For example, LGBTQ+ activists fought, along side disabled people, for the Americans with Disabilities Act because ADA provided protections to gay men who had HIV or were suspected to have HIV in housing and employment.

14. I know a lot of people with disabilities but do not identify as disabled. How does Disability Studies apply to them?

Many people fall into this category, especially those who acquire impairments or disabilities later in life. Disability Studies applies to them because the improved access to communities and society is impacting their lives regardless of their identity. Keyboards, curb cuts, TV captioning, voice recognition commonly used to text, and power doors are just a few examples of increased access that originated as a disability accommodation and benefit most all people. Accessible and non-discriminatory societies benefit all people, disabled and non-disabled alike.

Unique Considerations in Disability Studies Program Options

1.    Why does your Disability Studies program have an applied, community service requirement?

Community service is required for students to apply their learning through hands-on experience in promoting human rights and inclusion. Because of pervasive societal attitudes about disability, communities and organizations typically expect Disability Studies students to help people cope with or overcome their disability. However, our service learning projects focus on increasing universal access to society, whether it be disability, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation/ identity, or other characteristic.

2.    Why do you offer so many courses online when in-person education is the best way to learn?

It is true most people prefer in-person education. Yet, population-based research suggests well-designed, alternate strategies produce similar learning outcomes. For Disability Studies, robust non-traditional education takes on added importance because it greatly enhances access to education. A few student examples (with identifying information removed) illustrate.

  • Mary Jones is an autistic woman (her words) who took the first DS course online, in part because of the way she was treated by other students in traditional settings. In weekly discussion posts, she was articulate and eloquent in her contributions, yet rarely contributed in traditional classroom settings. She completed three courses. The third course was in traditional format and the dynamics between students who first knew Mary online were profoundly enriching, especially for non-disabled students.
  • Bill Smith lives with Tourette's and severe anxiety impairment for which he left college. As he stated, people stared at him when he "barked and "twitched." Online, he was able to explain himself and people got to know him and value him.
  • Marcus Fine lived with quadriplegia at a home 20 miles from campus and the online option allowed him to take courses that had been inaccessible because of transportation and attendant care needs.
  • Tomas Gomez was a "location-bound" community worker who worked with injured migrant and seasonal farm workers in a rural community who could only take DS courses online. For his service learning course, he developed a Spanish language "community access guide" for MSFW's and other mono-lingual Spanish speakers.

Online courses are a way to deliver on a foundation principle of universal access in Disability Studies. Students with disabilities are often the identified beneficiaries, but it is often non-disabled students who receive the greatest enrichment.

3.    How does Disability Studies address international and global issues?

Our courses address disability rights in the U.S. and internationally by analyzing policies such as the United Nations Disability Rights declaration. We also address human rights struggles such as the racial/ethnic rights, women's rights, indigenous people's movements, and LGBTQ+ rights, first in the U.S. and then globally. We do this in historical (e.g., ethnic strife in the U.S., Rwanda, South Africa) and contemporarily (e.g., discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. and in Myanmar). We also connect students in our DS courses with students in Ghana using distance technology.

4.    Does Disability Studies do Study Abroad?

Yes, we have a faculty led program taking students to Ghana each summer to live in local communities, engage in service learning, connect with Ghanaian students, and work with local leaders and communities to promote societal access and human rights. We also tour historic sites such as slave castles. As of summer 2017, we are also partnering with Psychology and Africana Education.  Our students earn up to 10 credits that are applied to their certificate or minor.

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