DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

We are delighted to present this special "back to school" issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, Disability Studies in the Undergraduate Classroom. The essays in this special issue include writing by undergraduates, undergraduate and graduate student teams, undergraduates along with their instructors, and a small number of academic pieces by professors. Many of the undergraduate papers are accompanied by pedagogical descriptions from the professors who taught the courses in which the papers were initially produced; for the longer essays abstracts appear in the Table of Contents. While we strove for consistency, we decided to highlight the interdisciplinarity of disability studies by publishing papers in their various genres and formats, and we elected to organize them, and discuss them below, according to themes and patterns, rather than by author categories. Indeed, at moments, it is hard to distinguish the undergraduate paper from the academic article. Although the Table of Contents and Introduction suggest thematic groupings, the collection as a whole can be read in any order.

If it is fair to generalize from the number and range of submissions we received, these snapshots of student and faculty work paint an intriguing picture of the current state of disability studies (DS) in the undergraduate curriculum. We are heartened to find that disability as subject and DS as critical perspective appear in a wide range of undergraduate courses in the humanities and social sciences; as represented in the submissions to this issue, disability has entered the curricula of anthropology, art, communication, English literature, history, education, geography, social science and social policy, speech pathology, various writing courses, and women's studies courses. Though produced for the classroom, this student writing also connects to activist spaces, as students reference the work they are doing in their communities and on their campuses. This good news is tempered, however, by the dearth of submissions from the "harder" sciences. In addition, we observed that DS assignments and pedagogies remain somewhat traditional in approach; their range needs to broaden further in order to realize the goal of fully integrating DS into the curriculum at all levels and for all learners.

Based on the submissions, DS appears alive and well across a number of different kinds of institutions in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and disability curricula are represented in small colleges as well as large research institutions. A number of these institutions have established DS majors or minors (such as the University of Arizona, Brandeis, Miami University, Ohio State, and Ryerson University), while others are newer to the field.

Is it fair to say that DS is changing the landscape of the university? There are reasons to be both excited by the progress we have made and realistically aware of the work still needed to make higher education fully inclusive and accessible. For example, pieces in this issue report on a program bringing young adults with cognitive disabilities together for a week's experience living and studying on a university campus; on geospatial and ethnographic analyses of the accessibility of a large university campus; and on accessible web design. While pointing to important developments, these pieces also detail barriers to full accessibility, which indicates work still needed in order to make the promise of DS's transformative power a reality.

Disability Studies as Agent of Change

Will "doing" DS necessarily entail a critical stance mandating change? Several pieces included here explore how the student of DS may change, how teachers are changed by their interactions with students in disability-themed courses, and how teachers can use DS to lead students to become deeper critical thinkers and readers. In "Passion and Action: Reflections on Learning to Do Disability Studies in the Classroom and Beyond," Jennifer Paterson, Heather Willis, and Jessica Hogan relate the gradual process of change in students' thinking and identification as they move through the Disability Studies program at Ryerson University. Through interaction with other students and instructors, reflection on their work experiences, and increasing DS knowledge, they learn new terms, gain tools for analysis, find strategies for challenging their own and co-workers' defensiveness, and become motivated to enact change. Such a process of change extends over several courses and years and is the culmination of a program of study as well as work experience.

At many colleges, however, students may have little exposure to disability issues, and there may be no DS program, with only one or two teachers infusing their curricula with disability themes, topics, and pedagogy. Two pieces included in this issue address the power of a single course that incorporates DS readings and approaches. In "The Mobius Strip: Disability Studies and Critical Thinking," Joy Cypher and Deb Martin describe an interdisciplinary, collaborative disability-themed course they developed and taught. Their initial goal was to use disability to engage students in issues of social justice and diversity in order to deepen their critical thinking skills, though they conclude that DS classes do not simply develop critical thinking through their content alone. In teaching the course, responding to student resistance, and rethinking their pedagogy, they made their own journey of "critical progress," as they redefine critical thinking as a recursive activity of thinking/acting, a movement rather than an outcome. Valerie Struthers Walker, Tara Mileski, Dana Greaves, and Lisa Patterson give us specific examples of pedagogy that focus on developing students' critical reading of disability representations. In "Questioning Representations of Disability in Adolescent Literature: Reader Response Meets Disability Studies," they demonstrate a way to structure assignments as student-initiated inquiries that foster awareness of the ways readers understand texts and use outside resources to make meaning.

Reflections on Disability

As we read the many submissions that stemmed from courses across the disciplines, we noted a number of trends that seem prevalent. One common approach was an assignment that called for "before/after" reflection — that is, a reflection that pertained in some way to disability at the start of the semester, followed by disability-themed coursework, and a culminating reflection at the end of the semester. While such assignments can create important learning experiences for students, they can also invite a familiar enlightenment narrative, along the lines of "Now that I have read about / seen / spoken to (a) disabled person(s), my mind has been opened." This enlightenment narrative reifies assumptions about "disabled" and "nondisabled" as rigid categories, and implies that disabled persons exist in order to serve as educational devices. Before and after reflections, however, need not reinforce an ableist, egocentric perspective; indeed, they often are enlightening for instructors, giving them a picture of what students have taken from a course. In her introduction to her student Erin Lower's reflective writing, Diane Driedger notes that she learned "many new disability experiences" from reading students' reflections. Erin Lower's before and after essays reveal a nuanced and complex shift in her understanding of disability, as by the end of the course, Lower not only grasped the importance of language but also the role of social barriers and attitudes in constructing the experience of disability. Importantly, she came to claim her own disability identity as well. A response to a similar assignment by Kathryn Burris in her Sociology of Disability course demonstrates her knowledge of disability readings as well as her emerging awareness of the need to critically rethink her own earlier disability narrative in terms of the social model she learned in the course; she gains a new understanding "of the need [for professionals] to partner with the disability community to bring about social change."

These varying perspectives and writings invite a reconsideration of what it means to be critical. Does a critical lens focus on changing the attitudes of the student as subject? Or does it focus more on the student as critic of representations? Does it result in activism to reform social barriers and attitudes? Or to a change in core identity? Do conversion narratives co-opt the goals of DS, or do they have a place along the arc of one's learning? As scholars of rhetoric and composition, the editors have frequently returned to these questions; these are the same issues we face in our own teaching and researching of disability studies. We don't have concrete answers, but we urge you to reflect on these questions as you design your syllabi and course assignments. We also hope that the works presented here, with their range of concerns, approaches, and modalities, will provide models or ideas as you continue your own work with DS in the undergraduate classroom.

Researching and Writing with a Disability Perspective

The value of a solid grounding in DS theory is evident in three student research papers, each of which advances a sophisticated argument made possible by applying a critical disability perspective to a wide range of research. In "Globalization and the Black Market Organ Trade: When Even a Kidney Can't Pay the Bills," Karen Hudson articulates the links between globalization, health care systems, and disabled people. Margo Moinester combines medical critique with a Deaf-centered analysis: in "The Nature of Risk: HIV/AIDS and the Deaf Community in the United States," she develops a critique of medical models of "risk groups" while also explaining how the Deaf community is at risk for HIV/AIDS, not because they form an identity group, but because of the "discriminatory social, attitudinal, and political environment." The submissions we received also reflect students' abilities to combine theoretical and historical concerns related to disability, as revealed in Sami Schalk's "What Makes Mr. Hyde So Scary? Disability as a Result of Evil and Cause of Fear." In this piece, Schalk demonstrates how careful reading in a historical context can illuminate new ideas about the familiar trope of disability as evil.

Writing Autism into the College Curriculum

The writings on autism included here came from general education and rhetoric classes that included readings and documentaries about autism, as well as from an undergraduate and graduate student team who focused on the relationship of research to social change. While these submissions can be read as part of the proliferation of recent discussions regarding autism, the pieces included here refuse the rhetoric of cure that typically dominates the popular press; in contrast, they focus on issues of agency, representation, and online experience. In "Autism: The Lived Experience," Kerry Bowen turns to the experiences of Daniel Tammet, Temple Grandin, and John Elder Robison (in comparison to more popularized accounts by authors like Jenny McCarthy) to argue that those with autism have "unique ways of thinking" and "talents." Scott Robertson and Ari Ne'eman claim the term "autistic" and chronicle the development of the neurodiversity movement, particularly in online settings. Their article also details the benefits and challenges of including autistic students on college campuses, which, as the authors note, requires "embracing autistic students' diverse gifts, talents, and abilities, while acknowledging and respecting their autonomy, individuality, and rights and responsibilities." Another article in this series, Hila Hirad's review of the children's book Looking After Louis by Lesley Ely, shifts the focus to how children learn about autism. Hirad claims that while Ely's portrayal of elementary-school student Louis, who is autistic, has some strong points, the book's text and images present him as "other" — yet as one whose disability should not be explicitly named or discussed. She concludes that a better message for children is "that it is okay to learn about differences in people" and to "openly inquire about them."

Intersections with Gender and Sexuality

Tobin Siebers suggests in Disability Theory that "disability studies may be in a position to offer significant adjustments to current theories of the body, especially the gendered and sexed body" (202). As is evident from the many works we received that focused on the intersections of gender/sex and disability, such adjustments may come not only from senior scholars in the field, but from undergraduates working in areas including qualitative research, literary studies, and gender studies. In "Disability and Gender in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Caroline Leach analyzes Kesey's novel using the intersecting lenses of gender and disability theory. She argues that mental illness in Cuckoo is presented as a form of emasculation, which "can simply be 'solved' by the injection of testosterone that is McMurphy." Her insightful reading points to the importance of intersectional analysis in revealing how representations of disability can serve to reinforce normativity (in this case of gender) even while seeming to embrace difference. In "Resistance Training," Margaret Shalma draws upon her experience with a women's gym, showing that the rhetoric the gym uses to "orient" its members draws upon discourses that equate fatness and pathology, holding up an ideal of the "normal" body as beautiful spectacle. Megan Albertz's "Let's Talk About Sex…and Disability Baby!" examines the politics of sexuality and disability, with a focus on disabled persons' writings about their own diverse sexualities. And Ashley Mog's "Threads of Commonality in Transgender and Disability Studies" maps the discrimination and medicalization that characterize the embodied experiences of trans and disabled identities. Mog includes close readings of the politics of space as it is governed through the technology of the public bathroom, a site of her activism. These works both affirm long-standing concerns in DS, including literary representation and medical approaches to "sex," while also pointing the way toward newer areas, including fat embodiment and trans studies.

Disability Autobiography and Representation

The problem of representation is an ongoing topic in DS. In the genre of autobiography, for example, such narratives may "offer the narrator as a disputatious figure critiquing the less than humane responses of a flat, often hostile, and uniformly able-ist culture" (Mitchell & Snyder 9); and/or they may raise difficult questions about collaboration and coercion (Couser). The three autobiographical essays in this section are part of a growing body of disability self-representation that moves beyond familiar tropes to offer new and complex interchanges among disabilities, art, access, truth, race, sexuality, and gender. In "Drawing out My Depression," Timile Brown recounts the difficulty of accessing a college education when even "support" staff claim that depression is "hard to believe" as a disability. In "Heading to the Big Show," Anthony Jackson offers a close look at daily college life as a power wheelchair user, addressing the complicated processes involved in accessing not only classrooms, but also dorms, cafeterias, on-campus work as a radio DJ, and study abroad. And in "Three Legs of a Bedroom Life," Alan Samry weaves together the themes of prosthetics, sexuality, masculinity, and technology in a meditation that spans decades. These works are, by turns, jarring, lighthearted, funny, and angry; together, they demonstrate the importance of undergraduate voices in disability arts.

We are also happy to include a visual art submission, produced by Carmen Caraballo and described by Julia Rodas. Rodas details how students and faculty worked together to discuss disability representations and created a disability awareness poster contest at Bronx Community College of the CUNY, and her description provides a guide for those hoping to develop similar contests to promote new conceptions of disability studies on campus.

Accessing Spaces and Histories

Many of the submissions we received engage ideas of what it means to access spaces and histories. For instance, students with intellectual differences and/or cognitive impairments are attending college at increasing rates; however, the question of how higher education might welcome these students is often ignored. How might the design of a university change to accommodate students with significant cognitive differences? Steve Sunderland's article, "Opening the Door to Higher Education: The Rights of the Intellectually Different to Access and Peace," tells the story of the collaboratively-developed "College Camps," a joint effort from many different scholars and activists in the Cincinnati area. During the 2007 and 2008 College Camps, groups of students attended classes, ate in cafeterias, navigated the campus, and lived together in dormitories. Sunderland describes the College Camps' many groundbreaking successes, but also points out the difficult questions they raised, such as what student "freedom" can and should mean in such a context.

Questions of access were also explored in research courses and online projects. In "Participatory Research on Universal Design and Accessible Space at the University of Arizona," Nicholas Rattray, Sarah Raskin, and Jackie Cimino examine the barriers to accessibility by exploring physical, attitudinal, social-behavioral, and policy-influenced strategies for campus design. To gather data on accessibility, they interviewed 25 campus and community members, and had them complete "map interviews," where participants charted accessible and inaccessible portions of campus from their own perspectives. They found that some access barriers are hidden, and that many of the needed changes require social education and adjustments rather than hefty financial resources. In "Snapshots in Review," Karla Kmetz shifts the discussion to online environments and explains her design of a "digital media portfolio" focused on creating a non-linear history of disability at the Ohio State University. As intended, the online project serves as a "model for other universities considering the implementation of their own Disability Studies programs," as well as a practical orientation to developing truly accessible and interactive web spaces.

We were excited to see a clear commitment to discussing access in the submissions we received; however, most of the work submitted for this issue appeared in "traditional" written form. In Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing, Patricia Dunn questions the dominance of print-based teaching and learning, arguing for the importance of providing a wide range of sensory learning opportunities in order to include all students. She suggests that writing is overly emphasized as a way for students to demonstrate knowledge, and she questions: "But what if schools used only math or only drawing or only dance as a way of knowing?" (50) We would like to suggest that access is increased when a Universal Design approach is taken to teaching and assigning writing, and such an approach includes incorporating multi-modal digital writing that makes use of aural, visual, design, and textual elements. As teachers doing disability studies, we might further explore how to assess student learning by offering students opportunities to work in modes outside "the paper," and perhaps by asking students to work in various modes to achieve the same learning outcome.

Another concern regards disability pedagogy: While the presence of disability "curricula" or "content" in so many locations is impressive, the adoption of inclusive pedagogies appears less common. Several of the submissions referenced the use of in-class exams or timed writings, which often disadvantage students with a wide range of visual and learning disabilities. It also appeared that many classes relied on a lecture format or had heavy reading and writing loads, which can exclude some students (both with and without disabilities), such as those who are kinaesthetic or non-aural learners, or who might express their mastery of the materials in other formats (particularly in classes not focused on teaching writing). Of course, the submissions we received may or may not reflect what is going on in classrooms where DS is happening, and we cannot know the degree to which such seemingly inaccessible pedagogies were made more accessible through various technologies, such as computer-aided real-time transcription (CART), printed lecture notes, online course materials, and the like. Still, it seems that approaches that rely on traditional concepts of reading and writing are common, and a universal design approach emerges less often than disability-as-topic.

To be sure, this special issue is no indicator of the full range of disability pedagogies at work in higher education, and as editors, we may have been remiss when designing the call for papers in failing to highlight both the range of submissions we hoped to receive, and why it was important to submit them. As noted by Dunn and De Mers in "Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space": "The hardest part of designing more flexible writing pedagogies is climbing out of our own text-comfortable cocoons — the writing-as-learning blankets we've had draped around us for so long. We can still keep our blankets. They continue to serve us well. But it's time for some spring clothes." To this end, we want to both laud the excellent writing we received, and also encourage pedagogies that reach beyond traditionally written papers. As teachers and scholars of writing, this is a challenge that we, as editors, must also respond to.

We deeply thank the students, teachers, and independent scholars who submitted work to this issue, particularly those new to submitting and revising their work for publication. We also want to invite further conversation on pedagogy, particularly for the many of us who are "doing DS" as the lone person in our departments, perhaps our schools, and/or from the vulnerable positions of graduate student, adjunct instructor, or pre-tenure professor. For though teaching disability studies in the undergraduate classroom often invites the disquieting comment that students are "thinking about disability for the first time," the progression of disability pedagogies need not be an isolated project taken on course by course, teacher by teacher. Just as students help shape an instructor's pedagogy and understanding of what it means to teach disability studies, colleagues do as well. As DS becomes less of a novelty and more a shaping concept in undergraduate education, we must not only embrace the challenge of changing the attitudes and knowledge of students, but also the difficult task of reshaping curricula and promoting an inclusive pedagogy so that disability studies truly transforms what it means to learn — about disability or any topic — in ways that include all people.

Works Cited

  • Couser, G. Thomas. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability and Life Writing. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.
  • ---. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004.
  • Dunn, Patricia A. Talking Sketching Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook & Heinemann, 2001.
  • --- and Kathleen Dunn De Mers. "Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space." Kairos 7.1 (Spring 2002). <http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/7.1/coverweb/dunn_demers/index.html> 13 September 2008.
  • Mitchell, David T. & Sharon L. Snyder. The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008.
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Copyright (c) 2008 Amy Vidali, Margaret Price, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson



Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

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