Paving the Way for the Field of Disability Studies

March 8, 2023

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States . They are the only minority group that one can become a member of at any point in their lifetime. The needs and visibility of people with disabilities have been, and continue to be, overlooked and neglected in many sectors, including academia. However, there are individuals at the University of California that are driving the rapid growth of Disability Studies across US-based college campuses

It is a product of the Disability Civil Rights Movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century, with organizers and activists mobilizing to fight for equity and inclusion for those living with disabilities. The movement had major success with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act  in 1990, a legal victory that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

From the momentum of the movement, Disability Studies emerged in the late twentieth century, with scholarship growing significantly through the early twenty-first century. Early scholars and activists paved the way for folks like David Serlin, Ph.D., a faculty co-advisor for the Transdisciplinary Disability Studies (TDS) group at UC San Diego (UCSD).

The group aims to create a “designated forum for intellectual exchange about critical transdisciplinary Disability Studies.” Though there are many students and scholars at various levels of academia studying topics related to disabilities, there is no one department that acts as an umbrella over Disability Studies. According to Dr. Serlin, that is one of the beauties of the field.

“This is why we use ‘transdisciplinary’ in our name; we believe our commitment to Disability Studies exceeds interdisciplinarity as a concept.” In fact, he believes that Disability Studies can and should draw from numerous fields from both the humanities and social sciences to “push against the perception of disability as a medical phenomenon.” He says that there has been a recent shift in the approach to Disability Studies, encouraging us to look at not what has been lost, but what there is to gain.

“There was a time that Disability Studies was positioned to critique non-disabled culture and expose its biases and limitations. In recent years, however, the focus is less exclusively on critique and more on presenting a vibrant culture of disability artists, activists and scholars who are less interested in criticizing the absence of disability in the public sphere and more interested in proactively supporting a parallel universe in which people with disabilities don’t have to be measured for what they cannot do, but instead are recognized for what they can and already do.”

These novel ideas inform the direction and studies of undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines. One such student is Rachel Fox, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication  and a key member of the TDS group at UCSD. Rachel studies the relationship between health, medicine, and marginalized bodies. She is interested in how “the concept of ‘health’ becomes moralized and used against people who don’t fit into its definition, especially fat and/or disabled people.” She hopes to one day work at a medical school, where she can address these issues and use teaching as an opportunity to eliminate these biases from the medical curriculum.

Scholars like Rachel take the concepts and knowledge gained from Disability Studies and apply them in practice, demanding progress from a world that was not built for those with disabilities. She describes a recent example of this, and how it might be used in the future to improve academia.

“At the beginning of our strike, [my union] had actually introduced a pretty radical access needs article in our contract (later dropped from the contract by the bargaining team) that would remove these administrative road blocks to accommodations and instead put the power of designing and implementing accommodations in the hands of union workers. I love this idea because, honestly, accommodations are often very specific to a given situation, so making them an ongoing dialogue… could be really successfully applied for undergrads, faculty, staff, post-docs, and other researchers as well.”

The work that scholars such as Dr. Serlin and Rachel do trickles down from the most advanced areas of academia, becoming important to undergraduate students and creating a demand for more formalized educational resources and programs. UC Berkeley launched the “Disability Studies at Cal” effort in 2000 to meet the need for designated Disability Studies courses. The initiative grew over the years and eventually resulted in the Disability Studies minor program, supported by over 43 faculty board members that work tirelessly to establish new undergraduate courses.

Students like Zoha Raad-Mazzeo, an undergraduate Media Studies major and Disability Studies minor at UC Berkeley,  benefit from these programs, not just from an educational perspective, but from a personal standpoint. She says, “The field of Disability Studies and advocacy is one to which I am keenly sensitive and hold close to my heart.” Zoha survived a stroke at 23, causing her to face many challenges and experience stigma due to her physical impairments. “The stroke cost me my job as an English tutor to preschool children in Iran, not because I was no longer able to teach, but because they did not like the way my hand looked and my newly acquired limp.” She hopes that by broadening her education in Disability Studies, she can help “reduce the stigma surrounding the impaired and the disabled.”

The future of Disability Studies is bright, and scholars and students across the UC are paving the way for generations of learners to come, combining scholarship and advocacy in revolutionary ways. Rachel sums up the necessity of the field best and leaves us with a question we should all continue to ask ourselves: “I see Disability Studies as the more deliberately scholarly arm of disability activism. One of the principles of disability justice is that everyone deserves a life with dignity. Disability is part of natural human variation, and although it may include bodily impairments, often those impairments are dramatically worsened by a world unwilling to accommodate them. I see Disability Studies partially as the project of documenting what gets in the way of a world where disabled people are treated well. How are disabled people being kept from the resources and accommodations that would benefit them, and why?”