Disability studies

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Not to be confused with Disability rights.

Disability studies is an academic discipline that examines the meaning, nature, and consequences of disability as a social construct. Initially the field focused on the division between "impairment" and "disability", where impairment was an impairment of an individual's mind or body, while disability was considered a social construction.[1] This premise gave rise to two distinct models of disability: the social and medical models of disability. In 1999 the social model was universally accepted as the model preferred by the field.[2] However, in recent years, the division between the social and medical models has been challenged.[1][3] Additionally there has been an increased focus on interdisciplinary research.[4] For example, recent investigations suggest using "cross-sectional markers of stratification" [5] may help provide new insights on the non-random distribution of risk factors capable of acerbating disablement processes.

Disability studies courses include work in disability history, theory, legislation, policy, ethics and the arts. However, students are taught to focus is the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities in practical terms. the field is focused on increasing individuals with disabilities access to civil rights and improving their quality of life.[6]

Disability studies emerged in the 1980s. In 1986, the Section for the Study of Chronic Illness, Impairment, and Disability of the Social Science Association was renamed the Society for Disability Studies.[7] The first US disabilities studies program emerged in 1994, at Syracuse University.[6] The first edition of the Disabilities Studies Reader (one of the first collections of academic papers related to disability studies) was published in 1997.[8] The field grew rapidly over the next ten years. In 2005, the Modern Language Association established disability studies as a “division of study.” [6]


Universities have long studied disabilities from a clinical perspective.[6] In 1986 the Section for the Study of Chronic Illness, Impairment, and Disability of Social Science Association was renamed the Society for Disability Studies[7] and its journal "Disability Studies Quarterly" was the first journal in disability studies. The first US disabilities studies program emerged in 1994, at Syracuse University.[6] However, courses and programs were very few. In the 1997 first edition of the "Disability Studies Reader" Lennard J. Davis wrote that "it had been virtually impossible to have someone teaching about disability within the humanities".[8] In the second edition, written ten years later, he writes that "all that has changed", but "just because disability studies is on the map, does not mean that is easy to find".[9]

Still the field continued to grow throughout the 2000s. In 2009 Disability Studies Quarterly published a A Multinational Review of English-language Disability Studies Degrees and Courses. They found that from 2003 to 2008 the number of disability studies stand alone studies courses in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada grew from 56 to 108 and the number of degree granting courses grew from 212 to 420. A total of 17 degrees in disability studies were offered, with 11 programs in the US, 2 in the UK, 3 in Canada, and one in Australia.[10]

A 2014 New York Times article "Disability Studies: A New Normal" suggests that the expansion in disability studies programs is related to the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those raised after the passage of the ADA have entered colleges and the workforce, as Disability Studies has grown. In a 2014 article, Disability Studies Quarterly published an analysis on the relationships between student run groups and disability studies, from 2008 to 2012. Their article analyzes groups at four different universities and describes how professors have incorporated student activism into their curriculum and research.[11] Measuring visual acuity. Visual acuity is measured by use of a snellen's chart


According to the transnational[12] Society for Disability Studies:

"Using an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary approach. Disability sits at the intersection of many overlapping disciplines in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Programs in Disability Studies should encourage a curriculum that allows students, activists, teachers, artists, practitioners, and researchers to engage the subject matter from various disciplinary perspectives.

  • Challenging the view of disability as an individual deficit or defect that can be remedied solely through medical intervention or rehabilitation by "experts" and other service providers. Rather, a program in Disability Studies should explore models and theories that examine social, political, cultural, and economic factors that define disability and help determine personal and collective responses to difference. At the same time, Disability Studies should work to de-stigmatize disease, illness, and impairment, including those that cannot be measured or explained by biological science. Finally, while acknowledging that medical research and intervention can be useful, Disability Studies should interrogate the connections between medical practice and stigmatizing disability.
  • Studying national and international perspectives, policies, literature, culture, and history with an aim of placing current ideas of disability within their broadest possible context. Since attitudes toward disability have not been the same across times and places, much can be gained by learning from these other experiences.
  • Encouraging participation by disabled students and faculty, and ensuring physical and intellectual access. Prioritizing leadership positions held by disabled people; at the same time, it is important to create an environment where contributions from anyone who shares the above goals are welcome."[4]

Disability studies and medical humanities[edit]

The social model of disability is expanded to chronic illness and to the broader work of the medical humanities.[13] Practitioners are working towards improving the healthcare for disabled people through disability studies. This multi-disciplinary field of enquiry draws on the experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities to address discrimination. Inclusion of disability studies in medical curriculum is being reported as a preliminary step towards bringing medical humanities into classrooms.[14] Infinite Ability has done some preliminary work in India to introduce disability studies to medical students.[15][16][17]

Intersectionality: Disability, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality[edit]

Recent scholarship has included studies that explore the intersection between disability and race. Ellen Samuels explores gender, queer sexualities, and disability.[18][19] Christopher Bell’s posthumous[20] volume on Blackness and Disability;[21] and the work of Robert McRuer both explore queerness and disability. These works engage with issues of neoliberal economic oppression. Scholars of Feminist Disability Studies include Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Alison Kafer.[citation needed] The 2009 publication of Fiona Kumari Campbell’s "Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness" signalled a new direction of research — studies in ableism, moving beyond preoccupations with disability to explore the maintenance of abledness in sexed, raced and modified bodies.[citation needed]Similarly, recent work has focused on the intersections of race and ethnicity with disability in the field of education studies and attempted to bridge Critical Race Studies with Dis/ability studies.[22] This work reflects an effort to deal with complex histories of marking racially "othered" bodies as physically, psychologically, or morally deficient, and traces this history of scientific racism to contemporary dynamics. Empirical studies show that minority students are disproportionately more likely to be removed from class or school for "behavioral" or academic reasons, and far more likely to be labeled with intellectual or learning disabilities.[23] The authors propose a union of critical race and disability studies, DisCrit, as an intersectional approach designed to analyzing the interaction between ableism, sexism, and racism.

In addition to work by individual scholars, disability studies organizations have also begun to focus on disability and race and gender. The Society for Disability Studies created the Chris Bell Memorial Scholarship to honor Bell's commitment to diversity in disability studies.[24] Postsecondary disability studies programs increasingly engage with the intersectionality of oppression. The University of Manitoba offers a course in on "Women with disabilities".[25] Several recent masters' student research papers at the University of York focus on issues related to women with disabilities and people of African descent with disabilities.[26]


Questioning the social model[edit]

The International Association of Accessibility Professionals [27] recognizes six different models for conceptualizing disability: social, medical, cultural affilitation, economic, charity, and functional solutions. Once universally accepted in the field, the social model of disability [2] has recently been challenged.[3] In a 2014 Disability Studies Quarterly article, students involved in campus disability drops note that they actively seek cures for their chronic illnesses and "question the rejection of the medical model" of disability.[11] The cultural affiliation model accepts the person's disability completely, and uses it a point of pride in being associated with other people in a similar condition.[28] The economic model recognizes the affect of bodily limitations on a person’s ability to work, and there may be a need for economic support and/or accommodations for the person’s disability [29] while the charity model regards people with disabilities as unfortunate and in need of assistance from the outside, with those providing charity viewed as benevolent contributors to a needy population. The functional solutions model of disability is a practical perspective that identifies the limitations (or "functional impairments") due to disability, with the intent to create and promote solutions to overcome those limitations. The primary task is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the impact of the functional limitations of the body through technological or methodological innovation. The pragmatism of the functional solution model deemphasizes the sociopolitical aspects of disability, and instead prioritizes inventiveness and entrepreneurship. This is the prevailing opinion behind compliance literature that promotes self-efficacy and self-advocacy skills for people with disabilities preparing for transition to independent living.[30]


Exclusion of cognitive and mental disabilities[edit]

One major area of contention is the frequent exclusion of the personal experience of impairment, cognitive disability, and illness, which is often left out of most discussion in these circles in the name of "focused" academic discourse.[citation needed]

Disability, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality[edit]

Disability studies has also been criticised for its failure to engage with or to take into consideration other potential layers of sociopolitical oppression, such as ageism, racism, sexism, transphobia or homophobia, as they may apply to disabled people in these oppressed groups[31]

Notable disability studies theorists[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Albrecht, Gary L., ed. Encyclopedia of Disability (5 vol. Sage, 2005)
  • Barnes, C. and G. Mercer. Exploring disability [2nd edition]. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2010.
  • Bell, Christopher, ed. Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions (Forecaast Series). LIT Verlag Münster, 2011.
  • Burch, Susan, and Paul K. Longmore, eds. Encyclopedia of American Disability History (3 Vol. 2009)
  • Burch, Susan and Michael Rembis. Disability Histories. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
  • Campbell, Fiona K. "Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness", Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Corker, Mairian and Tom Shakespeare. Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory, Continuum, 2002.
  • Davis, Lennard J., ed. The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge 1997
  • DePoy, Elizabeth, and Stephen Gilson, Studying Disability:. Los Angeles, CA: Sage 2011.
  • Guter, Bob, and John R. Killacky, Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004.
  • Johnstone, David. An Introduction to Disability Studies, David Fulton Publishers Ltd 2001
  • Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York University Press, 1998.
  • Lopez Casasnovas, & Nicodemo. (2016). Transition and duration in disability: New evidence from administrative data. Disability and Health Journal, 9(1), 26-36.
  • McRuer, Robert and Michael Bérubé. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (Cultural Front), NYU Press, 2006.
  • Nielsen, K. (2013). A Disability History of the United States. Beacon Press
  • Oliver, M. Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. New York, Basigstoke, 1996
  • Pothier, Dianne and Richard Devlin, eds. Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law (Law and Society Series), UBC Press, 2006.
  • Ronell, A. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
  • Siebers, Tobin Anthony. Disability Theory (Corporealities: Discourses of Disability), University of Michigan Press, 2008.
  • Snyder, Sharon, Brenda J. Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, eds. Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Modern Language Association, 2002.
  • Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability, University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Smith, Bonnie G., and Beth Hutchison, eds. Gendering Disability. Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Thomas, C. Sociologies of Disability and Illness: contested ideas in disability studies and medical sociology, London, Palgrave, 2007.
  • Withers, AJ. Disability Poilitics & Theory, Halifax, Fernwood, 2012.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Session Details: Avenues of Access: The State of Disability Studies". Modern Language Association. Modern Language Association. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Bickenbacha, Jerome E; Chatterji, Somnath; Badley, E.M.; Üstün, T.B. (1999). "Models of disablement, universalism and the international classification of impairments, disabilities and handicaps". Social Science & Medicine. 48 (9): 1173–1187. doi:10.1016/s0277-9536(98)00441-9. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Dewsbury, Guy; Karen, Clarke; Randallb, Dave; Rouncefield, Mark; Sommerville, Ian (Oct 2010). "The anti‐social model of disability". Disability & Society. 19 (2): 145–158. doi:10.1080/0968759042000181776. 
  4. ^ a b "what is disability studies?". Society for Disability Studies. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  5. ^ Siordia C. (2014). Disability Prevalence According to a Class, Race, and Sex (CRS) Hypothesis. Journal of Racial & Ethnic Health Disparities, DOI: 10.1007/s40615-014-0073-8.
  6. ^ a b c d e CAPUZZI SIMON, CECILIA (1 November 2013). "Disability Studies: A New Normal". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  7. ^ a b "Mission and History". Society for Disability Studies. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  8. ^ a b Davis, Lennard J., ed. (1997). The disability studies reader. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415914703. 
  9. ^ Davis, Lennard J., ed. (2006). The disability studies reader (2nd ed. ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415953337. 
  10. ^ "A Multinational Review Of English-Language Disability Studies Degrees And Courses". Disability Studies Quarterly. 29 (3). 2009. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  11. ^ a b Stout, Allegra; Schwartz, Ariel (2014). ""It'll Grow Organically and Naturally": The Reciprocal Relationship between Student Groups and Disability Studies on College Campuses". Disability Studies Quarterly. 34 (2). Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  12. ^ "About". Society for Disability Studies. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  13. ^ Garden, R (December 2010). "Disability and narrative: new directions for medicine and the medical humanities.". Medical humanities. 36 (2): 70–4. doi:10.1136/jmh.2010.004143. PMID 21393285. 
  14. ^ "Disability Studies in Medical Education". Retrieved 19 October 2012. 
  15. ^ Singh, S; Khosla, J; Sridhar, S (July 2012). "Exploring medical humanities through theatre of the oppressed.". Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 54 (3): 296–7. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.102461. PMC 3512382free to read. PMID 23226869. 
  16. ^ Khetarpal, A; Singh, S (2012). "Infertility: Why can't we classify this inability as disability?". The Australasian medical journal. 5 (6): 334–9. doi:10.4066/AMJ.2012.1290. PMC 3395292free to read. PMID 22848333. 
  17. ^ Singh, S (May 2012). "Broadening horizons: looking beyond disability.". Medical education. 46 (5): 522. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04246.x. PMID 22515781. 
  18. ^ "Department of Gender and Women's Studies". Womenstudies.wisc.edu. 2013-02-27. Retrieved 2013-05-07. 
  19. ^ "Women and Disability: Feminist Disability Studies [Disability Studies]". Disabilitystudies.syr.edu. Retrieved 2013-05-07. 
  20. ^ BA Haller (2009-12-26). "Media dis&dat: Obituary: Chris Bell, disability studies scholar on race, HIV/AIDS, dies". Media-dis-n-dat.blogspot.ca. Retrieved 2013-05-07. 
  21. ^ Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2013-05-07. 
  22. ^ Annamma, Subini Ancy (18 November 2015). "Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): theorizing at theintersections of race and dis/ability". Race Ethnicity and Education. 
  23. ^ Annamma, Subini Ancy (18 November 2015). "Dis/ability critical race studies(DisCrit): theorizing at theintersections of race and dis/ability". Race Ethnicity and Education. 
  24. ^ "chris bell memorial scholarship". Society for Disability Studies. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  25. ^ "Disability Studies Courses". University of Manitoba. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  26. ^ "COMPLETED MA PROJECT RESEARCH PAPERS". York University. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 
  27. ^ "Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies". International Association of Accessibility Professionals. Retrieved 23 July 2016. 
  28. ^ Shapiro, J (1994). No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Broadway Books. 
  29. ^ Strnadová, I; Cumming,, Therese (2015). Lifespan transitions and disability : A holistic perspective. Routledge. 
  30. ^ "Transition of Students With Disabilities To Postsecondary Education: A Guide for High School Educators". .ed.gov. Retrieved 2016-08-25. 
  31. ^ Caldwell, K. (2010). "We Exist: Intersectional In/Visibility in Bisexuality & Disability". Disability Studies Quarterly. 30. Retrieved 26 March 2015. 

External links[edit]