What Are Disability Studies?

Disability studies is defined as an academic discipline that examines the nature, meaning, and consequences of disability. It is a multidisciplinary field, broadly intersected by:

  • the sciences
  • the social sciences
  • the humanities

Disability studies focus on the medical and social constructs surrounding disability. The ultimate focus of disability studies is to enhance the civil rights of individuals with disabilities and to improve their overall quality of life. This work often involves the hard job of changing perspectives on disability, both personally and socially.

One who engages with disabilities studies will learn to challenge the view that a disability is a deficit only treated by medical means.  They work to destigmatize impairments socially, culturally, and politically. They will also study global perspectives related to disability, working to learn from other contexts and cultures. Lastly, disabilities studies learners will work to encourage intellectual, physical, and social access to disabled persons, ensuring that they live in a world where their contributions are welcomed and heard.

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Disability Studies Terminology

The word “disabled” continues to be used culturally to describe people with disabilities. However, in some settings, the use of the term “disabled” to describe a person with these extra challenges is falling into disfavor. While not true at present, the time may come when the term “disabled” is universally inappropriate or politically incorrect when speaking about this specific population.

When it comes to the terminology academically associated with this discipline, ‘disability studies’ is the current academic norm. However, because one of the aspirations of disability studies is to enhance the civil rights of differently-abled individuals, paying heed to acceptable and changing terminology is important. One of the best ways to stay up to date on appropriate terminology is to follow the recommendations of the National Disability Authority. A current list of appropriate terms to use can be found here.

History of Disability Studies

Disability studies represent a fairly new academic discipline. This area of study initially emerged in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada in the 1980s. The first disability studies program was established at Syracuse University. In 1986, the Society of Disabilities Studies was established.  It was responsible for the study of disability, chronic diseases, and impairment.   The Society for Disability Studies also began producing its first journal titled Disability Studies Quarterly.

Many individuals who’ve followed the trajectory of disabled studies believe that this discipline took off with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination of people with disabilities in all areas of life. This includes areas fully open to the non-disabled public including:

  • industry
  • social situations
  • education
  • transportation

In 2009, the ADA made significant changes to the term ‘disability’ and the act was amended. Now, since the turn of the 21st century, disability studies continues to be a consistently growing discipline.

The Intersection of Disability Studies with Other Disciplines

In academic arenas, disability studies often (and should) intersect with many other academic disciplines. According to a study commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, disability studies most commonly intersects with four other disciplines:

  • Race/ethnic studies: How are race and ethnicity defined, constructed, and applied? How do they overlap or intersect as related to gender, class, nation and religion?
  • Feminism/women’s studies: An interdisciplinary area of study as well, women’s studies explores the history, experiences, and contributions of women to society, as well as the cultural/social construction of gender and the influence of gender on life.
  • Gender/sexuality studies: Explores how notions of gender and sexuality have emerged, as well as the ways their lived experiences interact with all facets of life.
  • Social class studies: An exploration of the way social class (far bigger than income) affects the ways we think about the world, as well as act or achieve related to those thought patterns.

There is a common thread between disability studies and these four disciplines. Systems of oppression exist, and they can detrimentally impact one’s lived experiences. By engaging with disabilities studies while also engaging with these other areas of study, the academic is not allowed to lose sight of each system of oppression, as well as the way the systems interact with and affect each other. Many disabled persons live their lives under multiple oppressive systems (i.e., a disabled person who is also a minority), so one must study all of the systems in order to fully engage with and support that group of people.

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Exclusion of Mental and Cognitive Disabilities

Historically and currently, disability studies programs/topics have kept most of their focus on social and cultural issues related to the disabled population. This has meant that mental and cognitive disabilities are often not included in a disability studies academic program. There has been some movement within this discipline to broaden the field of study to encompass mental and/or cognitive disabilities as well. However, there is currently no imminent academic change expected.

Disability Studies and Employment

Those interested in pursuing this field are likely wondering ‘what can I do with a degree in disabilities studies?’  There are a variety of disabilities studies jobs (with excellent anticipated job growth), usually in settings like educational institutions, rehabilitation centers, senior citizen and assisted living centers, caregiver centers, and government assistance offices. Some possible careers include occupational therapist, social and human services professional, special education teacher, rehabilitation counselor, social worker, and directorship positions over disability services at educational institutions. Note that many of these careers do require graduate-level education as well.

The field of disability studies is continually growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a strong 10% growth in this area through the year 2028. As more people elect this academic discipline, we are likely to see more focused concentrations and specializations available to the students pursuing this career. This academic and cultural growth and focus will be (and is) a promising and encouraging sign that more and more persons are changing their perspectives on disability, doing the good and hard work of ensuring that all human beings are given the access and privileges that should be their right.

ABA Programs Guide Staff

March 2020

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