- Making Stories Matter Inside and Outside the Classroom: Service Learning in a Disability in Literature Course
When I joined the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy invited me to join a group developing a minor in Disability Studies on our campus. My personal history (my father had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or als, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was a wheelchair user) and my scholarly expertise (I am interested in how literature engages with issues of social justice) primed me to say “yes,” and I soon developed a new course, “Disability in Literature,” for my department and the new program. I started teaching the course in 2008, and in 2013, responding to an on-campus grant opportunity to integrate service learning into a course syllabus, I introduced a small service learning project where students would work with a local organization serving people with a disability.1 Although it takes time and organization on the part of the instructor and for the students, service learning has enriched my teaching experience and my students’ learning experience.
Since service learning is a pedagogical practice that sets up students to “serve” a community with a need, it posed problems for a course in disability studies, a field that questions and disrupts common narratives about disability, such as the idea that “those people with disabilities” require the help of able-bodied people. Service learning can potentially model systems and actions that frame people with disabilities exclusively as recipients of services and resources, while the able-bodied are exclusively those who can provide these services and resources. As Cassandra Phillips argues in “Re-imagining the (Dis)Abled Body,” such scenarios—which are apparent in telethons and other appeals for support for charities related to disabilities—reinforce predominant stereotypes in contemporary culture wherein “[p]ersons with disabilities are ritually defined as dependent on the moral fitness of nondisabled people” (198). But the pedagogical tool of service learning, when developed and deployed thoughtfully and with the involvement of people with disabilities, can support the goals of a disability studies course.
My “Disability in Literature” course, designed to have broad appeal so it could run regularly, is a sophomore/junior-level English course, open [End Page 65] to all majors, and fulfills both the “Diversity” and the “Ethics” elements of our campus’s General Education requirements. It draws students from larger programs such as psychology, nursing, and criminal justice. The course explores how writing and films in many genres portray people with physical, emotional, social, and mental disabilities. We read both fiction and nonfiction texts by writers with and without disabilities, asking questions about theme, focus, and narrator. We interrogate ways that literature has historically used disability (as David Mitchell has argued) as “a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (49). We discuss the stereotypical characters with disabilities who appear again and again in literature, film, and popular culture. Hands-on activities help draw in non-English majors who are not familiar with literary study.
The first activity is an “accessibility scavenger hunt” that asks students to move around the campus, record observations on the accessibility and inaccessibility of campus buildings and offices, and write about their findings. We read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who developed locked-in syndrome after a stroke, leaving him able to control just one eye. He wrote the book by blinking, so we spent part of a class period attempting to communicate using his system. After these and other activities, students reflected on their experiences through in-class discussions and writing assignments, activities which are particularly important in service learning.2 Questions, such as “what were your expectations prior to this activity and how do they compare to your response after completing it?” and “how has this activity influenced or changed your perspective on a class reading assignment, or on the category of disability, or on your learning process?” helped students to connect the activity to the academic goals of the course, and also ideally to connect the activity to their...