UW News

November 20, 2008

Dennis Lang: The activist behind disability studies at the UW

UW News

For someone who volunteers his time at the UW, Dennis Lang, guiding light behind the Disability Studies Program, has made a tremendous mark on the University.

In fact, it was Lang’s activism in part that resulted in the program’s creation. Then just as he expected his part was done, he was — quite fittingly it seems — asked to lead the new program.

Now, due to the efforts of two graduate students who were mentored by Lang, a new scholarship is being set up in his name. The Dennis Lang Student Award in Disability Studies, offered through the UW Foundation, will help undergraduate and graduate students committed to advancing the field of disability studies.

Lang, 61, is a soft-spoken, bespectacled fellow with an easy smile. He uses a power wheelchair to get around campus. He had polio when he was 1, which caused total paralysis. His condition improved during childhood — he gained the ability to walk — but his strength waned again in adulthood due to Post-polio syndrome. Lang can still walk and does so around the house, but the wheelchair, which he’s been using since his early 40s, makes getting around much easier.

Lang knows firsthand about disability issues, and about being treated as a “second class person” because of his own disability.

What form has this taken? Lang thought a moment. “Well, there have been so many ways,” he began. “From not being able to get into a building to having to take a separate, out-of-the-way path to get to that building, to always being stared at, feeling like there are no personal boundaries — anybody can come up and ask you a personal question at any time — and growing up being a huge target for abuse.”

Instead of this thoughtlessness, Lang said, people with impairments and physical and mental differences should be seen as just another variation of humanity. When labels are used or people are categorized by their disabilities, “that’s like saying, ‘You’re not like me, you’re different,'” Lang said. “That then creates this lack of social niceties.”

Lang earned a master’s degree in public health from the UW in 1984, but returned in 1999, having retired from another career and uncertain of his future. He got to know Sherrie Brown, who was at the time a research assistant professor in the College of Education (she’s now an associate professor); Kurt Johnson, a professor of rehabilitation medicine; Bruce Kochis of UW Bothell; and Susan Jeffords, then the divisional dean for the social sciences (now vice chancellor for academic affairs at UW Bothell).

Disability issues had been taught at the UW by Johnson and others, Lang said, but the funding had run out. And the emphasis had been more on medical issues, where disability studies focuses on the social and legal understanding of disability. “We talked about it and thought it would be great if we could re-energize the campus and see if we could form a disability studies program,” Lang said.

The result was the creation of a planning committee to discuss how to proceed. Then came a surprise: “They turned the tables on me,” Lang said. “They said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to help lead this and in order to lead this we need to give you a faculty appointment. So they gave me an affiliate instructor appointment through Rehabilitation Medicine.” He also now is an affiliate instructor in Women Studies and is a member of the instruction staff of the Comparative History of Ideas Department.

He began by teaching a focus group, which blossomed into five sections, so he and Brown informed Jeffords of the proven demand for a full course. Brown stepped forward to teach a second class, and the program began to take shape. The program offered its first actual class, Introduction to Disability Studies, in the winter of 2001.

The UW began offering a minor in Disability Studies in 2005, and Lang described an effort now under way to enable students to major in the field through individualized study.

But Lang knows there is much more to be done. He’d like to see a major, a graduate certificate program and large lecture classes that students would find earlier in their college career. And having at least one dedicated faculty member “would be ideal,” he said. The Provost’s Office has asked the program to submit a five-year plan for the its future, though Lang wonders whether the economic downturn might put any growth plans on hold for a while.

People don’t often get honored with scholarships during their time at the UW — “it’s usually after someone dies!” Lang joked — but it shows the great respect of professional colleagues and students he has helped.

Holly Siegrist, director of the ASUW Student Disability Commission, said Lang helped her come to “take pride in my disability.” She wrote in an e-mail that in a focus group she attended, Lang had her write journal entries about her disability.

“Exploring my thoughts about disability really made me passionate about the work that I do this year as director.” She said she still looks to him for advice and support.

Former student Charity Ranger, now volunteer coordinator for the Seattle-based group the Alliance of People with disAbilities, said she took Introduction to Disability Studies in 2003. Inspired, she and a classmate created the Disability Advocacy Student Alliance, which she said is still active. She said Lang helped them write their goals and guided them toward others who would support the group.

Describing herself as “boisterous, really bubbly, kind of rude,” she contrasted their two personalities. “Upon first meeting him you think he’s quiet and boring — oh, he’s a teacher. But he’s so caring. He’s awesome, and has a wicked sense of humor!”

Ranger, who is also a person with disabilities, said, “When I deal with personal issues, even though he’s old and a guy, like, he’s incredibly sensitive and he really — gets it.” But she described how he also has a firm side. She said, “The thing I really love about Dennis is, he has a really good balance of being accommodating versus kicking my ass!”

Graduate students Kristina Knoll McMullen in Women Studies and Mo West in Nursing teamed up to create the award in Lang’s name. In an e-mail, McMullen said, “Not only has Dennis supported the disability studies community in creating a critical new field at the UW, but he has (also) invested countless hours over several years in our UW community. Creating this student award in his name was a way for us to show how much Dennis’ hard work means to all of us.”

Finally, Joanne Woiak, a lecturer in the Disability Studies Program, said, “All of us associated with the program consider Dennis to be not only a valued colleague but a close friend and comrade.”

To learn more about the award in Lang’s name through the UW Foundation, visit online at http://uwfoundation.org. To learn more about the Disability Studies Program, its courses and goals, visit online at http://depts.washington.edu/disstud/program.html.