Disability Studies


The new Ryerson Polytechnic University Bachelor of Applied Arts degree program in disability studies offers a departure from other disability-related academic opportunities. While rehabilitation-orientated programs may reference the social context of disability, Ryerson’s Disability Studies Program holds this as its PRIMARY FOCUS.

One simply has to consider the volume of the books, articles and journals emerging over the last decade to appreciate the number of individuals and organizations getting behind a field of study whose time has come. Just as women s studies attempts to place women in a social, political and cultural context, so disability studies attempts to place disability in this context and to examine how social structures shape the experience of people with disabilities.

In 1993 an official definition of disability studies was adopted by the Society for Disability Studies, a professional organization of academics from around the world. The definition states that disability studies, among other things, “examines the policies and practices of all societies to understand the social, rather than the physical or psychological, determinants of the experience of disability. Disability Studies has been developed to disentangle impairments from the myth, ideology and stigma that influence social interaction and social policy. The scholarship challenges the idea that the economic and social statuses and the assigned roles of people with disabilities are inevitable outcomes of their condition.”

Lennard Davis, in his introduction to “The Disability Studies Reader,” suggests that disability studies has its roots in both activism and academia: “Like the appearance of African American studies following rapidly on the heels of the civil rights movement, there is a reciprocal relationship between political praxis by people with disabilities and the formation of a discursive category of disability studies.”

Of course, there are important academic programs across Canada that address specific rehabilitative issues as they relate to people with disabilities. And clearly, the needs of the individual remain paramount in these programs.

However, the disability rights movement laid much of the groundwork for the current development of disability studies by mounting a dramatic revision of the way disability may be understood. It was people with disabilities themselves who shifted the perspective away from a focus on individual deficiency and pathology, and towards a focus on the socially constructed barriers (inaccessible architecture, exclusion, prejudice) as the “real” or sociological problems of disability. People with disabilities began to describe themselves as a legitimately entitled minority group.

It became clear that the more traditional approaches within universities to disability instruction and research, with emphasis on individual deficits and deviance, was inappropriate when contemplating such issues as discriminatory social policies, violence and abuse, unemployment and poverty. A disability studies perspective adds a critical dimension to thinking about the extent to which exclusionary norms, aesthetic “ideals,” patterns of practice and social policies have significant consequences for people with disabilities. Disability scholars refer to this as the “social model of disability” and contrast it with the more traditional emphasis on biological impairment, termed a “medical model.” They believe that overemphasis on the medical model has detracted from full citizenship for people with disabilities.

Carol Gill, director of the Chicago Centre for Disability Research, has identified a number of categories that distinguish disability studies from the medical or rehabilitative approach. According to Gill, disability studies is guided by a social mode for minority group model of disability; is multidisciplinary; takes a cross-disability approach; focuses on the social, political, cultural, and economic context rather than the individual; aims its intervention to correct oppressive social systems and practices, instead of intervention to ameliorate impairment; and addresses the longstanding oppression of the disability community by including the perspective, voices and participation of people with disabilities in meaningful and respectful ways that enhance power equality between people with and without disabilities.

Oliver, Barnes and Barton, at the Society for Disability Studies Conference in Chicago, in a paper entitled “Activists or Academics: Disability Studies in Britain,” described the critical challenge related to maintaining the “fusion” between disability studies and people with disabilities and their organizations. As discourse on disability moves into the academic mainstream, academics must not succumb to the pressures of the academic world and turn their back on the movement of people with disabilities, “those who first brought us here.”

Some academics believe the best site of disability studies in the
university curriculum is in liberal arts, where social scientists
and humanities scholars can analyze disability s social and
cultural significance. Others believe disability studies should
be a component of curriculum in applied fields where there is already a knowledge base and faculty support for disability work, and because people with disabilities want professionals to learn social model analysis.

It is this latter argument that has most resonance for the
disability studies program at Ryerson and its curriculum, which
is based in the principles of human rights and

(For more information, contact the School of Disability Studies
at Ryerson, (416) 979-5000, ext. 6128; e-mail: ds@acs.ryerson.ca;
website: www.ryerson.ca/ds.)


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