UW Today

This is an archived article.

October 18, 2007

Disability and Society: Examining disability in context

Class title: LSJ/CHID 332: “Disability and Society,” taught by Dennis Lang, affiliate instructor in rehabilitation medicine; and Sharan Brown, Research Associate Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, in the College of Education.


Description: Until the Disability Studies movement, much of disability in the curriculum was the medical model: Identification, treatment, coping with the world, etc. This class asks students to think of disability as a construction of society and culture. Based on that approach, students look at sociological, political, anthropological, linguistic, and legal ideas that help them understand disability in a more complex way, making it about the whole of society and not just about a few marginalized individuals. Students are sent out to measure and evaluate the campus against the norms set for access by law. They also have a sort of show and tell of disability related “artifacts” they see in everyday life.


Instructor views: “This class represents the viewpoint and experiences of people who identify as disabled or are considered disabled by society. This is not an understanding of disability that students will find in any other part of academe,” wrote Dennis Lang.


Sharan Brown added, “One goal of higher education should be to ask students to critically examine existing social norms and beliefs. The course does that through the readings, discussions, and activities that challenge the dominant societal view of disability.”


Unexpected experiences: Lang and Brown said that when students evaluate buildings with disability access and provisions of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) in mind, they sometimes find that buildings satisfy “the letter of the law but not the spirit.” An example, Lang said, is a building that has been duly equipped with wheelchair ramps in accordance with ADA, but what’s been overlooked is that the ramps are on the other side of the building from the elevator.


Student views: “I chose to minor in Disability Studies because I am hard of hearing and I want to get to know other disabled students, and to learn more about myself,” wrote student Holly Siegrist, a transfer student who plans to double-major in psychology and Comparative History of Ideas, with a minor in Disability Studies. “Disability and Society is a great class as it introduces students to the history of disability, which is not known about by many people, and it exposes us to the culture and expressions of disabled people and their experiences.”


Siegrist praised the instructors for the class’s open and thoughtful discussions. “Disability Studies is a really interesting minor, as we will all someday become disabled if we live long enough. Many of us have a disability or know someone with a disability and the class, Disability and Society is a great way to educate people and to form allies for disabled people. If someone is looking to minor in Disability Studies, Disability and Society is a great place to start. I would like to see more people become educated about disabled people. In the future I plan to be a psychologist and to write self-help books and books to educate people about disabilities.”


Angela Staiger, a junior, wrote, “I took this class because as a Women Studies major with a minor in Law, Societies, and Justice, I’m interested in looking at the experiences of different groups cross-culturally. I feel this class is really important. So many other minority studies discuss race, gender, sexual orientation, and the corresponding personal and historical perspectives of the group members. What make disability studies so special is that it includes all of those discussions but also make you aware that it is the only minority that someone can join at any given point in his/her life, whether through an accident, injury, disease, or other cause.


“It also makes you more aware of the politically correct terminology and the implications of such terms. For instance, saying a person is ‘afflicted-with’ a disability or ‘wheelchair-bound’ gives many negative connotations to the person’s situation. This class has been a free space where it’s OK to ask questions and not feel ignorant for having to ask. It has also made me more cognizant of how I treat a stranger with a disability. I was always kind, holding open doors and such, but now I realize that someone with a disability may feel like they are constantly on display because the stigma associated with a wheelchair or a cane makes it nearly impossible to blend in with the crowd. Constantly having people help you may feel like they think you can’t do it on your own. The kindness can turn into pity.
“Overall I would recommend this course to anybody. It can really open your eyes.”


Reading list: Main textbook is No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, by Joseph Shapiro (Random House, 1993). Also a wide selection of other readings, include chapters of Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, by Simi Linton; Stigma and Social Identity by Erving Goffman; Americans With Disabilities and the Civil Rights Tradition, by Leslie Francis and Anita Silvers; Everybody Belongs: Changing Negative Attitudes Toward Classmates With Disabilities, by Arthur Shaipro; Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland Thomson, and many other book chapters and articles.


Assignments: In addition to reading and extensive classroom discussions, students are asked to find and interpret “cultural artifacts” that depict disability, be they objects, images or language, in brief papers. In groups, they also conduct an architectural accessibility survey of a University or other state government building, and then present it in class to Brian Dudgeon, an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine, who chairs the UW Standing Committee on Accessibility. A final paper takes the place of a final exam.