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What Are Disability Studies?

Disability studies is defined as an academic discipline that examines the nature, meaning, and consequences of disability. 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.

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Terminology and Disability Studies

The word “disabled” continues to be applied to this course of study. With that said, in some settings, the use of the term “disabled” to describe challenges faced by a person is falling into disfavor. The time may come when an adjustment is made to the moniker currently commonly used in regard to disability studies.

At this time, when it comes to the terminology associated with this discipline, disability studies is the accepted term of art. With that noted, 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.

History of Disability Studies

Disability studies represent a fairly new academic discipline. Disability studies initially emerged in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada in the 1980s. The first disability studies program was established at Syracuse University.[6] The first edition of the Disabilities Studies Reader was published in 1997.

Many individuals who’ve followed the trajectory of disabled studies believe that this discipline really took off with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act The ADA became law in 1990. Since the turn of the 21st century, disability studies has been a consistently growing discipline.

The Intersection of Disability Studies with Other Disciplines

At this juncture of the 21st century, disability studies intersect with other academic disciplines. Specifically, disability studies intersect with four other disciplines: race studies, feminism or women’s studies, gender and sexuality studies, social class studies, according to a study commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council.

There is a common thread between disability studies and these four disciplines. A part of the course of study in these disciplines is a focus on the system of oppression. The intersection considers systems of oppression that adversely impacts individuals with some sort of disability. The intersection further analysis additional systems of oppression at work in the lives of disabled individuals based on race, gender, sexuality, or being a woman committed to feminist principles and objectives.

Exclusion of Mental and Cognitive Disabilities

Historically, and carrying forward to this point in time, disability studies nearly always keep a sharp focus on physical issues. Generally speaking, mental and cognitive disabilities are not included in disability studies currently. There is some movement within this discipline to broaden the field of study to encompass mental or cognitive disability. However, no imminent change in this regard is expected among academics in this discipline.

As noted, the field of disability studies is growing. As more people elect the discipline, some of these individuals are electing to focus their studies. For example, there are disciplinary studies students who elect to focus their course of studies on the politics of disabilities or on disability students and on of the different intersecting disciplines previously discussed.