This is an archived article.

April 22, 2010

A big donation and a new administrative home for Disability Studies

Spring has brought good news to the UW’s Disability Studies Program: It has a new administrative home in the College of Arts & Sciences and received a major donation, too.

The program started small, as a focus group in 1999 and then a class, both taught by Dennis Lang, an affiliate instructor in Rehabilitative Medicine and the program’s first director. Its first class as official program, Introduction to Disability Studies, was held in 2001. The program began offering a minor in 2005.

The next year, the Provost’s Office and the College of Arts & Sciences, with additional support from the Law School, the School of Social Work, and the School of Nursing, collaborated to create a three-year funding commitment to support the Disability Studies Program, with decisions about a more stable funding arrangement to be based on the instructional and programmatic activities over this period. Law Professor Paul S. Miller served as director of the Disability Studies Program for two and half of these three years, leaving his term early for the best of reasons — he assumed a position at the invitation of President Obama as a Special Assistant to the President.

Sherrie Brown, research professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the College of Education (and associate director of the University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities) was named the program’s director in 2009, and Lang is now its associate director. In addition, the program has 10 other interdisciplinary faculty from across the UW.

The program just received a bequest of $500,000 from the estate of Harlan D. Hahn, a longtime disability activist and a political scientist at the University of Southern California. Hahn worked for passage of both the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities, and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He died in April of 2008.

“The bequest is earmarked either to endow a chair in disability studies … or to endow disability studies scholarships for students and for research grants for faculty,” Lang wrote in an e-mail, adding that the amount is not enough for a full endowed chair. “We have decided to do the latter while hoping the rest of the funds could be found so that the gift can be used for the Disabilities Studies chair.”

The program also has been transferred from the Provost’s office to a new administrative home in the College of Arts & Sciences. The administrative and advising support for the program has been provided from the start by Ann Buscherfeld, administrator, and Mark Weitzenkamp, adviser, both of the Law. Societies, and Justice Program, located in the Division of Social Sciences. So it makes sense that Disability Studies will now be officially located in Social Sciences.

Judy Howard, divisional dean of social sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, has been the informal administration liaison for the Disability Studies Program since 2006-07. Howard said she is delighted by the move and that Social Sciences is a perfect home for Disability Studies.

“With their mutual emphases on both instruction and research on many aspects of diversity and social justice, both the Disability Studies Program and the Social Sciences Division will be enriched by this partnership,” Howard wrote in an e-mail. She stressed that Disability Studies “is a program of importance for many UW schools and colleges,” and that she expects he that “the growing interest in disability studies across many fields will lead to deepening connections and collaborations across the University.”









The program also has been transferred from the Provost’s office to a new administrative home in the College of Arts and Sciences, and with that has come official designation as a permanent program at the UW.

As a third bit of good news, Disability Studies now can support an individualized study major, which allows students to design their own major in various disciplines.

Brown said although disability studies in higher education is growing, “we are unique in being truly interdisciplinary and integrated within traditional disciplines.” And having found an administrative home in Arts & Sciences, she said, “provides both the security and the visibility that will help us continue to expand the number of courses that include disability content across campus.”

She said students — from undergraduates to professional students — have been “critically important” to the program’s development. “They were quick to recognize that the University had few, if any, courses that discussed disability from other than a medical perspective and eager to take the courses we offered.

And the demand continues; we have a great deal of work to do to meet their expectations. The Hahn gift will allow us to provide some support to those students who are committed to this area of study as well as faculty research. Like other civil rights movements, the disability rights movement will change society as we have known it and it is significant that the University has recognized the importance of instruction and research in this area.

Lang said he was pleased “we don’t have to prove our value anymore.”


  • Disability Studies has two brown bag discussions coming up. Janelle Taylor will speak on “People with dementia as subjects of research” from noon to 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 30, and Julie Myers will speak on “Disability identify and personal narratives” from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, May 28. Both lectures are in 408 Savery.
  • An event of related interest is being put on tomorrow, April 23, by the Dept. of Philosophy, the Program on Values in Soceity and the Critical Medical Humanities research group. The Rabinowitz Symposium, “Approaching Dementia: Creativity and Ethics in Caring,” will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Room 316 of the South Campus Center. Learn more online here.

For more information about the Disability Studies Program, visit online here.