By Miriam Berger, Assistant Features Editor
At a University where classes such as “Gender in a Transnational Perspective” and “Ethnographic Approaches to Queer Studies” have moved towards the mainstream, Allegra Stout ’12 nevertheless felt that something was missing. “I’ve been interested in disability studies for a long time,” Stout said. “A lot of classes have disability as a side note, but I wanted a more focused way to look at it.” Disability studies—an inter-disciplinary field that approaches disability as a key aspect of human experience and identity with important political, social and economic implications—will now be redeemed from its sidebar status in a new student forum led by Stout, as well as Ariel Schwartz ’12, and Meredith Holmes ’10, that meets Thursdays from 1:10 p.m. to 4 p.m. “We are going to look at disabilities the way that everyone looks at race and gender,” Stout said. “The forum will study people with disabilities as a marginalized oppressed group and seek to create social theories about that experience.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” Under the ADA, Americans with disabilities are afforded similar protections against discrimination as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. According to Schwartz, disability studies have developed over the last few decades as a more theoretical approach to embodiment and the experience of having a disability. “When you volunteer for the special Olympics, it’s not the same as looking at the issue from a social science, oppression based way,” Schwartz said.
The discussion-based forum, which requires about sixty to eighty pages of reading a week, is intentionally flexible to accommodate different learning styles and creative pursuits. Each of the eight participants is required to lead one class, submit several papers, and complete a final project. One component of the discipline is the social model theory of disability. “The idea is that instead of the traditional medical view of disability in which there is something internally wrong with a person, the social model locates a person in the interaction between him or herself and a society that isn’t set up for them,” Schwartz said. “It’s not that your leg is broken, but that society is disabling you.” “Crip theory,” another element of disability studies, was developed in connection with queer theory and addresses the oppressive normalizing forces of society that shape the experience of disabled embodiment. According to Sheila Mullens, Visiting Instructor in American Sign Language, this forum is part of a wider academic movement. “There is such a need in advocacy, law, and education for an approach like this,” said Mullens, who incorporates lessons on deaf issues into her second year sign language course. “I think that this is a wonderful beginning. It is an important part of the community.” Across the country, institutions such as Teachers College of Columbia University, University of California at Berkeley, and Temple University, have all instituted disabilities studies programs on both the undergraduate and graduate level.
Schwartz urged Wesleyan to consider taking a similar path. “There are a lot of classes that deal with disabilities tangentially,” Schwartz said, noting in particular American Sign Language, Psychotherapy Pathology, Ethics of Embodiment, and the Psychology of Gender. “I easily counted 10 classes that could fit under a disability class course structure.” Stout has a similar aspiration. “In the same way that a few decades ago women studies and female, gender, and sexuality studies (FGSS) didn’t exist, disability studies are a new, rapidly growing discipline.” Stout said. “I hope that this student forum will lead to interest in more professors and classes specializing in this field.” Such was the case for Emily Wenzel ’10, who had no prior exposure to these theories before hearing from Holmes about the forum. “I think that it’s interesting to look at, or attempt to look at, these experiences through someone else’s perceptive who deals with these considerations everyday,” Wenzel said. Wenzel, whose brother was disabled in an accident, found the open environment of the forum ideal for discussing topics, such as the appropriate terms to use for identification, often hesitantly approached in other courses. For Crystal Abbott ’10 this forum provided the opportunity to build upon previous activism.
“I’ve been involved in the autistic community for some time,” said Abbott, who is autistic. “Disability activism is something that I intend to be involved with all of my life. I see this forum as a resource for me to get a deeper academic knowledge about disability activism and history.” Stout originally presented the idea for the forum during a meeting of Wesleyan Students for Disabilities Rights, a group that she founded last fall as a freshman. Stout, Schwartz, and Holmes all attributed their interest in this field to personal influences, such as the experience of a family member with a disability or positive volunteer encounters. Stout, however, stressed that disability studies is not an all-encompassing term. “Disability studies does not include everything that deals with disabilities,” Stout said. “It is opposed to some approaches to disabilities, such as organizations, medical practices, and charities that evoke pity.” She echoed Schwartz’s sentiments that volunteering should not merely be about the volunteer helping the person with disabilities, but rather should accentuate the strengths of both parties in order for each individual to gain from the perspective of the other.
While the forum’s facilitators lauded the University’s attempts to increase the accessibility of campus, such as the recent wheel chair ramp installed at 200 Church, they noted that a wider campus awareness of these issues is still needed. “Accessibility isn’t just about ramps,” Schwartz said. “It’s about lighting, about the way people teach, and a million other everyday things.”
Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights meets on Mondays at 8:30 p.m. in Usdan 114. Students can contact Allegra Stout (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information on the forum or about the group’s campus work.