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Friday, November 18, 2011

The University of Virginia ought to create a disabilities studies major : By Sam Carrigan, Columnist : Nov 18, 2011

Seeing our blind spots

The University ought to create a disabilities studies major and acknowledge a community that remains overlooked

It seems safe to say the University is more integrated and diverse today than it has been at any previous point in its history. Yet although the advances that have made this true are worth celebrating, continued promotion of diversity will involve taking bold steps that may seem difficult. These measures are necessary, however, to prove that our concept of diversity is more than a code word for rainbow-striped conformity. In particular, we must begin reaching out to people with disabilities and, more than just accommodating them, we must make them feel welcome.

The University has done well adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Almost every day, I see the elevator granting access to the Monroe Hill House which takes people to only two places: on the hill or off it. One might imagine that a school running on a tight budget might not have made that accommodation at a location that sees relatively few visitors. There remains only the problem of mobility during the school’s constant cycle of construction — as I type this from the barely accessible Cavalier Daily office in the basement of half-finished Newcomb Hall, I notice that such projects could serve to make some students feel unwelcome.

Similarly, the regular calls for note-takers in large lectures shows a consideration for those who have one of the less-visible disabilities which still constitute, in the legal language of the ADA, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Yet in the area of academic content, there remains an opportunity to create a disability studies major or minor which would give interested students the ability to learn and research in a field that holds so much promise. As words such as “gay” and “retarded” fall out of favor, “crippled” and the like continue to be used with impunity. Disability studies offers a way to find out if such language, among other social conventions, serve to undermine the recognition of people with disabilities as fellow human beings.

One can see a similar framework for academic representation being pushed by the Univeristy’s LGBTQ community, which is seeking a queer studies major or minor. Their argument is solid: A queer studies curriculum would allow students to explore a focused field which touches on numerous sociological, political and ethical issues which are pertinent to notions of gender identity. The same case can easily be made for disabilities studies, which could do much to explore how this identity alters our social arrangements and institutions.

The Cavalier Daily has already covered the push for queer studies, which has probably more momentum behind it than any other academic change, save the Spanish minor. Sean Kennedy, a University graduate who was cited in the Sept. 8 article “Gay at U.Va.: Part III,” said, “If a university is about learning and scholarship, we’re really showing a lack of faith in the LGBTQ community if we don’t offer a major or minor.” There is nothing incorrect about this statement except for its limitations: This logic can certainly be applied to people with disabilities who contribute to the University, as well.

University of Illinois at Chicago Prof. Lennard J. Davis is a specialist in disability studies who has spoken on the subject of creating disability studies majors or minors. Davis notes the difficulty some people have with reconciling disabilities with the notion of diversity. Diversity, he explains, is generally about empowering people with traditionally overlooked identities. He says that within that paradigm, “disability seems to be the poster student for disempowerment.”

Disabilities continue to be viewed through the lens of a medical definition of “normal” and not so much as a part of someone’s identity. As Davis says, people with disabilities still get referred to as “patients” in unfair contexts. Expanding the reach of diversity to people who force a recognition of the “lack of choice and the powerlessness of most people,” as Davis puts it, would be a challenge but something which could produce academic insights and quality dialogue on Grounds and beyond.

There are many hurdles for such an academic program to overcome, even if it were to be founded tomorrow. Evan Dunks, a second-year College student who helped advertise Disability Awareness Week, said in an email, “Disability Studies courses would help some people at UVa understand what certain students experience everyday, but as a major it seems like something that would set disabled students apart from the rest of the student body.”

This raises a valid point: How would we create new fields of identity studies without forcing them to become isolated from and ignored by the rest of academia? The quickest solution is that professors can begin introducing materials related to people with disabilities into their existing curricula.

Of course, some liberal arts professors feel uncomfortable having a “token minority week,” where, for example, they lump together all the black or women writers covered by their course. I cannot say I blame them, but any steps forward are a positive change. The slow process of altering institutions will be sped along by professors adapting early and students asking for change from the bottom-up. With enough of an effort, we can redefine diversity to recognize the millions of disabled Americans who belong in what Maya Angelou called the “rich tapestry” of an inclusive society.

#Source: The Cavalier Daily
Sam Carrigan’s column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily.

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