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Spotlighting Disability Studies in Education

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Shining a spotlight on a newer, yet growing concentration in academia, disability studies in education, fits my initiative in focusing on disability-related topics this month in honor of the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Disability Studies in Education surfaced in the United States with the founding of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) in 1982. According to the organization’s website, the Society for Disability Studies is “an international non-profit organization that promotes the study of disability in social, cultural, and political contexts.”  It took almost 20 years after the SDS’ founding for a special interest group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) to develop Disability Studies in Education (SDE) in 1999.  This marked the beginning of formalized disability educational research, theory, and practice, in academia.  The SIG states that the purpose of disability studies is to examine the issues related to the interaction between disability and various aspects of culture and society.  This field is focused on the numerous viewpoints of challenges that are defined and experienced by people with disabilities and how such incidences relate to social exclusion and oppression in society.  Disability studies provides a means for critical inquiry and political advocacy to occur due to the concentration’s ability to effectively utilize existing approaches from the humanities, humanistic/post-humanistic social sciences, and the arts.

According to National-Louis University’s report on disability studies in education, since the official development of this particular academic focus, the field has grown to include numerous peer-reviewed publications; a sponsored annual conference, one short-lived journal (Disability, Culture, and Education); annual meetings and sessions at AERA; one book series (Disability Studies in Education by Peter Long); and several undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs and concentrations in disability studies or disability education.  Syracuse University, University of Washington, UC Berkeley, and National-Louis University are just a few higher education institutions to offer this unique concentration.

Disability 1Though disability studies is one of the younger fields to have emerged in academia in the later part of the 20th century, its importance in establishing a deeper understanding of the societal issues, history of disability rights, and discriminatory practices that people with disabilities have endured, and continue to face, cannot be overlooked.  Having such a concentration signifies that the lives of people with disabilities are worthy of study and consideration when it comes to researching (and implementing) the best practices to provide equal opportunities and fair treatment among those within this large minority group, as well as create a means of learning imperative lessons from the past when it comes to the mistreatment and erroneous ideologies about how and why people are disabled in our society.

The need for more programs to be made available in the educational realm so that more professionals are equipped with the knowledge and understanding that is needed to effectively advocate for people with disabilities is necessary.  I know personally how I would have relished at the opportunity of either minoring or majoring in such a concentration during my undergraduate career.  A strong stance must be initiated to broaden the availability of disabilities studies in higher education, as well as ensure that professionals, from social workers to elementary to secondary educators, are armed with more than just a general understanding of what the term disability means and to whom it is applied to.  When professionals have a deeper comprehension about the history and lives of those with disabilities, then advocacy efforts to improve existing barriers will become more direct and potent.

(Feature headline image:  Courtesy of Sign Collection.)