- Theory Meets Practice in an Introduction to Disability Studies Course
“Why have I never heard about disability rights issues before in my classes?”
“The information I have gained is not only educational but also applicable to my everyday life and I am looking at the world with a very different perspective.”
These comments from two of our students in “Introduction to Disability Studies” are typical of responses to the undergraduate disability studies curriculum at the University of Washington (uw). Since 2003, the Disability Studies Program has offered courses that explore disability as an issue of social justice and human diversity. The students come from disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. The largest numbers are interested in disability studies as preparation for their careers in applied fields such as law, psychology, education, social work, and public health. For some the courses fulfill a major requirement, while others take disability studies in pursuit of the Human Rights or Diversity minors. Most students come into the introductory survey class with little prior knowledge of the history of the disability rights movement or the perspective that disability is a category of oppression, since disability and the voices of disabled people are rarely included in the rest of the university curriculum.
The mission of our interdisciplinary program is to problematize society’s predominant understandings of disability, and to examine the social, cultural, political, economic, and historical factors that define and frame disability as a marker of difference. Four undergraduate courses are core requirements for the minor and major degrees in Disability Studies at uw. Typically five to ten students complete the minor each year, while a total of nineteen have graduated with the major. Our curriculum increases the depth and breadth of critical thinking around disability issues within the university as well as the community at large, enhancing the connections between relevant scholarship and informed social action. In this article we analyze and share insights from some of our collective experiences teaching an introductory survey course in disability studies.
“Introduction to Disability Studies” provides a foundational understanding of the field and its relationship to the ongoing struggle for disability [End Page 96] rights in the United States. The course was co-created in 2002 by Sharan Brown, a research professor in Education and Associate Director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, and Dennis Lang, who after retiring from a career in nursing and public health came to uw as a disability activist and affiliate instructor in Rehabilitation Medicine and in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Brown and Lang taught the survey quarterly for many years in a small lecture and discussion format, with an enrollment of 30–40 upper-level undergraduates and an occasional graduate student. For the last four years, it has been taught annually by Joanne Woiak, whose background is in the history of science and who is now a full-time lecturer in disability studies, as a 200-level lecture for 80–90 students with twice-weekly discussion sections of 20–25 students each. We have hired one or two teaching assistants each quarter, with funding provided by the uw Diversity minor. The tas have been graduate students from a wide range of disciplines, including public health genetics, political science, anthropology, rehabilitation, social work, English, and gender studies.
Collaboration across disciplines and perspectives helps balance disability studies’ broad abstract concepts against its controversial and intimate topics and the profoundly personal reactions to this material. The instructors and teaching assistants who co-teach “Introduction to Disability Studies” work together not only to revise the syllabus and devise inclusive instructional methods, but also to debrief after each class session and discuss what the students are saying (and not saying) in their assignments and class participation. The syllabus and pedagogy are continually evolving because of the instructors’ divergent experiences and approaches to the material. We expect our students to be active and critical participants, to provide constructive feedback on the topics and approaches, and to collaborate with us on ways to make the time and spaces we share together as welcoming and accessible as possible.
When we began offering the course as...