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  • The Intersection of Disability Studies and Health Science
  • Sharon Cuff (bio), Kathleen McGoldrick (bio), Stephanie Patterson (bio), and Elizabeth Peterson (bio)

On the first day of class I always ask my health science students, “Why disability studies?” Inevitably more than half the class answers, “Because I want to help people.” I groan and think, here we go again. I sit in my wheelchair facing a room full of future doctors, nurses, PAs, PTs, OTs, and human service providers, who have decided to forge their careers in healthcare services. To many disability activists, our students represent the medical model of disability—the enemy. They are those who see us as our disability. Who only see our deficits, and strive with their paternalistic knowledge to fix us and help us fit better into the construct of the normal they are accustomed to. Although I know they mean well, the task of changing over twenty years of societal indoctrination seems quite overwhelming and maybe a bit futile. I have to ask myself, “Why do I choose to attempt to educate future healthcare providers about what it means to live well with a disability?

“Because if I don’t, who will?”

— Kathleen McGoldrick

Theoretical debates over which academic department disability studies (ds) is most aligned with can go on for days with no compromise, but the one thing most disability studies scholars usually agree on is that disability studies does not fit best within health science. After many decades of active struggle to establish a social model of disability and disengage from all things medical, why would anyone even consider such collaboration? Minds have been made up for some time and the resounding reaction to this suggestion has consistently been, “No.” Simi Linton, in her 1998 article suggesting an “interdisciplinary field of inquiry…called Disability Studies” states the importance of there being “two separate domains” isolating disability studies from what it is “Not”(Linton “Disability Studies” 528). She insists that it is important to situate disability studies within fields that treat it as a social phenomenon. Many activists and scholars do not see synergy between the study of medicine and disability studies. “One of Disability Studies’ major hang-ups is its default position with respect to the field of medicine….”(Souza). Traditionally, ds scholars have taken an adversarial stance against the medical profession and most would consider a collaboration to be treasonous. During the founding of disability studies and [End Page 37] while it was becoming established, such a conclusion and practice was logical and maybe necessary, but at this time, we respectfully disagree.

Paul Longmore disagrees as well. He believes that, “Students interested in health care…need to have the opportunity to study this [disability] in the same way that they have the opportunity to study women’s history or African American history or Asian history”(Stanford University News Service). Ironically, the study of disability, as a social phenomenon is not new. Steven J. Taylor discusses the social theories of stigma, deviance, and labeling that took root in the 1960s (xiv), and addresses the implications that labeling of people with various disabilities has had on them. Within the health and rehabilitative sciences, disabled status was exclusively addressed as the consequence of impairment with which an individual had to live. It was not until the early 1980s that the minority group model of disability, fashioned after other civil rights causes, grew out of an effort by activists to address 1) the cultural, vocational, and political prejudices faced by those living with disability and 2) the absence of these issues in discussions about disability that solely focused on correcting impairment (Longmore 2).

In 1982, the Section for the Study of Chronic Illness, Impairment, and Disability (ssciid) was founded by a cohort of sociologists and medical anthropologists and by 1986 the group was renamed the Society for Disability Studies (sds). sds is the most widely known “scholarly organization dedicated to promoting disability studies” (Society for Disability Studies About sds: Mission and History). Presented as a part of human existence, research and teaching about disability focused on the unique, individual experience of disability, “without examining the ignorance, fear, and prejudice that deeply influenced...


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