DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

This reflective paper unravels some complexities of learning to do Disability Studies. I (Jennifer Paterson) begin with a description of Ryerson's students, illustrating how their identities and lived experience offer much to learn from. Using two pieces of student writing (by Jessica Hogan and Heather Willis), I will identify some key learning moments for several students in the Disability Studies Program. Key learning moments include becoming open to learning from and about personal experiences of and with disability, learning to identify what disability "problems" are located in society and politicizing disability, and gaining an awareness of sources of privilege and difference and applying this knowledge beyond the classroom.


For some Disability Studies students starting university and learning to be a student is a frightening and overwhelming process. In my (Jennifer's) experience as a graduate of the Disability Studies program at Ryerson, learning how to think and write about disability and difference was a big part of that process and far more complex than I anticipated as I entered the program. The complexities of learning and learning how to write are wrapped up in the lived experience students bring to the classroom. As Disability Studies continues to build momentum in Canada and internationally, this paper begins to document the experiences of students learning to do Disability Studies. It does not engage with critical pedagogical frameworks/theories from teaching perspectives but instead uses student perspectives to unravel some of these complexities.1

I begin with an overview of Ryerson students, illustrating how their identities and lived experiences offer much to learn from and a base from which they can begin to politicize disability. Throughout the paper, the voices change as I offer my perspective from my various affiliations with the program. As a graduate of the program, I insert my story at various points alongside experiences from other students and alumni. At some points I use we to signify solidarity with my peers, students in and graduates of the program. I also write in the third person, referring to students generally, as I reflect upon my experiences as a mentor and teaching assistant in Ryerson's Disability Studies Program.

Disability Studies Students at Ryerson

Many Disability Studies students at Ryerson, including me, never expected to attend university, having been told explicitly or implicitly that we would not succeed. Ableism, sexism, racism and classism have prevented us from getting in the door or staying in the academy. In many classrooms outside of the Disability Studies Program, disability is accused of interfering with pedagogy. These messages are embedded into our bodies/minds as we move through the educational system, leaving wounds that leak into our post-secondary education.

Many of us come from working class backgrounds. Some of us are the first in our family to attend university. Since the program at Ryerson was designed to provide further education to students with post-secondary diplomas, all of us are community college2 graduates. Many work in the field supporting people with disabilities, often in precarious working conditions in places like group homes and schools, working as attendants and support staff. Most of us sense problematic situations in our workplaces and in our lives as disabled people but do not necessarily know how to name these problems, let alone know how to make systemic changes and challenge oppression. What we do carry with us is an abstract vision and passion for change. We stumble upon the School of Disability Studies in various ways, although our passion and vision for change is palpable among most of us.

Many Ryerson students do not expect to begin critical analysis from personal experience, to analyze our sources of privilege and oppression and to discover how each of us is a political being. Many students also do not know how to identify the multiple sources of ableist gazes, let alone how to move the gaze from our bodies to our culture. Learning how to do Disability Studies entails a process of undoing the cultural scripts that have written us off as non-academics and imagining new ways of relating to disability and other forms of social oppression. It is a long process in which transformation happens inside and outside the classroom.

All of us carry a disability story with us and obviously disability intersects with our lives in a variety of ways. Some students in the program are disabled. Many students are currently non — disabled. I like to think that many, as I do, shatter the binary of disabled/not disabled, but I was not able to conceptualize this until many years into my studies. I defined disability as something that did not personally affect me; it was just the people I supported who needed "help." And so I came to the school of Disability Studies hoping to become a better support worker and advocate. As I progressed through the Disability Studies program, I learned how ableist practices shape all of our identities and bodies. My definition of disability became more complex, and I learned how to weave an intersectional analysis into my perspective.

Key learning moments for some students in the Disability Studies program include: becoming open to learning from and about ourselves, being able to identify what disability "problems" are located in society and politicizing disability, gaining an awareness of our own sources of privilege and difference and applying our lessons beyond the classroom. By identifying different key learning moments in Disability Studies, however, I am not suggesting that there is a set linear learning trajectory for students. There are a variety of critical learning moments and shifts in thought patterns that happen at different times for each student.

In documenting how Ryerson students learn how to do Disability Studies and to identify key learning moments, I offer two student papers and selective comments from one student and an alumnus. The first paper is by Jessica Hogan, a current student, written in the first required Disability Studies course. The second paper is by Heather Willis, now an alumnus, written in a senior course. The remainder is written by myself (Jennifer) but is inclusive of the experiences of my peers.

The First Course

Ryerson's first required course, Perspectives on Disability One, teaches students to acquire new tools, language and questions to examine their lived experience of disability and/or work as advocates and activists. The curriculum starts from the lived experience of people with disabilities, weaving disabled voices into course work. In progressing through the program, some of us discover moments that uncover oppression and difference within ourselves. Some students who have never been labelled, or who identify as non-disabled, do not realize that they too will uncover how the construction of normalcy affects each of us. While learning how to employ a social model lens in writing and thinking, students often stumble upon other forms of oppression and difference, deepening their alliance with disabled people. Many students struggle to find their own voices and sense of agency to write — — our voices as disabled and mad people, women, queers and racialized people — — that have been silenced, denied, and surveillanced to the point where writing is a frightening task. Many of us have been denied access to learning writing and critical thinking skills, because we haven't been considered serious learners and thus haven't been taught properly. In my experience, it took a long time to shift from problematizing myself, to critiquing teaching ideologies and cultural norms.

The first assignment in Perspectives in Disability Part One allows students to explore and play with writing through a critical analytic voice. Writing in response to an assigned course reading, students write a short summary and respond to the paper. It is through this paper that (some) students stumble upon sites of difference and oppression within themselves, or in others, that they did not expect to encounter. This discovery paves the way toward their deconstructing their personal experiences as political, planting the seeds of a feminist and disability rights consciousness.

Jessica had an unexpected shared connection to Pat Capponi's,3 Dispatches from the Poverty Line, which she writes about in her response to the chapter. Her paper is an example of a raw and honest attempt at politicizing her life experiences. Through strong use of her autobiographical voice, Jessica begins to unsettle how she too has been othered through her family's class status and her struggle with depression. Jessica and I worked together to slightly edit some of her paper but the majority of her paper remains unedited to reflect her knowledge of disability issues and her analysis of them at the beginning of her studies.

Planting the Seeds with Vision and Passion: Jessica Hogan

When I applied to the program, it never occurred to me that I would be affected on such a personal level. I knew mental illness would be a topic of discussion. I also had a vague idea that poverty and disabilities are often linked. However, I did not know that depression was a "real" mental illness4 and that poverty and disability are deeply connected to one another. Pat Capponi's chapter addresses the connections between poverty and depression in a language I understand on a personal level. But I was in no way prepared for this. Disability Studies was supposed to help me learn and understand the dynamics of other people's disabilities. I did not expect it to make me question my own personal history and current way of living.

I was raised in a white, middle class family, in a nice Mississauga suburb, with two parents and four siblings. Life was good. I had friends, was good at sports, I sometimes fought with my siblings like other kids, and I loved my parents. I was happy. Somewhere along the way it fell apart. My father lost his job and became angry. At some point when I began to understand the implications of his job loss I became extremely shy and self-conscious.

When Capponi published her letters in NOW5 magazine, she took a huge step in making her personal account with depression and poverty public. She used her private experiences to try to create political change. Through sharing her story many people were able to connect and piece together their own stories, myself included. This paper hit home with me on a variety of levels. At one point I had to put it down and walk away. The following two quotes made me feel very uncomfortable: "They [suicidal thoughts] have become an emergency escape plan, comforting, always there, always with me, like a promise, like a light at the end of a long frightening tunnel" (Capponi, 1997, p. 10). "I prayed for a terminal illness the way some kids pray for cars and credit cards" (Capponi, 1997, p. 11). Reading these two quotes I felt as if Capponi had reached in to my head and pulled out my inner most private thoughts. At first, I felt violated. After stepping away from the paper for several hours, I felt relieved and less intruded upon. I reminded myself that these were my private thoughts and Capponi did not steal them. But my experiences feel terrifyingly similar to hers. Though I have not attempted suicide, it is something I find myself thinking about frequently. Simply knowing that suicide is an option offers me an odd and somewhat unsettling type of comfort. When I'm doing "better" or when I'm thinking of my mother, I find myself dismissing thoughts of suicide. Nevertheless, I still often want an "easy" way out. Which is exactly where praying for a terminal illness comes in to play. I know it would be selfish of me to take my life; I know by committing suicide I would destroy my mother's life. However, if I were to somehow contract a terminal illness, it wouldn't be my fault. I couldn't be held responsible for what happened to me. No one would blame me for being weak or giving in. I would be allowed to succumb to the hardships in life.

My upbringing was not nearly as harsh as I imagine Capponi's to have been, but even so, I still felt an extremely strong and somewhat frightening connection to Capponi. When Capponi wrote, "We were not good enough, quiet enough, clean enough, smart enough, invisible enough to make our presence tolerable" (Capponi, 1997, p. 8), I again felt as though she stole my thoughts. I would not be surprised if that exact line was written in my old pink diary. Now that I am older, I am able to look at my adolescence from an objective point of view. I realize it was not horrible. I never went to school with bruises; my neighbours never heard screams. Yet, ever since I hit puberty, I have felt that I have been a nuisance, a burden. Nothing I did was right. I was not pretty. I was not smart. I was not creative. I just was not. There was no point for me to be in this world. When I did find something I managed to excel in, I could never let myself believe it was true. It was a coincidence, luck, a fluke. It was not my doing. When I look back now, I see there was no real reason for me to believe any of these things were true. However, living in this middle class society as a young girl I was bombarded with society's view of the "perfect" woman. I watched in awe as the girls around me wore expensive clothes, and grew in to their new teenage bodies. They were beautiful; they played dumb to get boys, but did well in school. They were happy and I felt like an outcast. My self-image became skewed. I began to distance myself from others because I felt as if I didn't fit the proper role for a young woman.

Capponi's paper evoked a lot of my memories, causing me to learn from the emotional experience. Her story provided a means to compare to my own life and helped me to analyze some of my life experience. Although I have never been quite as impoverished as Capponi, I have lived in fear of poverty for the last ten years of my life. To this day, I still find myself hoarding objects, much in the same way Capponi did. The difference was I had no idea why I did it. But I do now that I have read this paper.

Like Capponi, I am afraid of the day when I will no longer be able to afford such simple luxuries as a can of corn or a box of tampons. After my father lost his job, my mother continued to work part time, but it wasn't enough to support a family of six. I clearly remember the day we received a letter in the mail stating that our house would be taken away if we did not pay the property taxes my parents owed. I would lay awake at night worrying what would become of my family. A vague notion of homeless shelters clouded my thoughts. At that point I was too young to fully understand the politics that surround poverty. I did not know what it meant when people spoke of Mike Harris6 cutting welfare rates. But I understood exactly how Capponi felt when she wrote, "I felt his contempt and the weight of his judgments" (Capponi, 1997, p. 13). I saw what I thought was contempt on the faces of all my peers. Every day I felt their judgments. Every day was another day I wasn't good enough. I couldn't afford stylish clothes or the best shoes; I didn't buy my lunch every day. I became more and more of an outsider. Looking back now, I'm able to see this as my depression, not as children being malicious.

This paper has not only made me think more deeply about the Disability Studies program and what it entails; it has also made me question what disability is and my relationship to it because of my depression. I hope that the passion this chapter has filled me with is something I can carry with me through the rest of the program. I want to continue to learn how to make the personal political, by reading others narratives and analyzing my own life experiences.

Emerging Perspectives and Questions

I believe Jessica's paper is an example of how often times a new consciousness awakens in the first course. With a new perspective and set of questions, the seeds are planted for a different take on disability; many students begin to see how disability is socially constructed and question how it touches each of our lives. Many of us question how to apply what we have learned in our lives and workplaces and how to survive as activists; these questions are at the forefront of our minds as we return to work.7 For some students, leaving the safety of the Disability Studies community is disorienting after being together for an intensive two weeks of learning.

Three of the required program courses are offered in a two-week, on-campus intensive format where students build community and befriend allies who are necessary to utilize as we return to jobs in environments that are often hostile to a Disability Studies perspective. Some of the questions that I and other students grappled with upon returning to work include: How can we apply what we learned in the classroom to the workplace? How can we begin to advocate for change? And how will we survive if we are the lone activist in our workplaces?

These questions do not get resolved until later in the program, if they get resolved at all during undergraduate studies, but a student's perspective does shift, inside and outside the classroom. An understanding of disability issues and practice continually changes as students analyze Western culture and mature personally and professionally. In the beginning, learning about the social model of disability is often a revolutionary idea in itself. Students grab on to it and learn to critique the medical model and the role everyone plays in the construction of disability.

The curriculum includes much more than just a social model analysis, however. In the first required course students learn about the social model and some critiques of it. They are introduced to intersectionality and other important theories including feminist and queer theory and more. Learning to critique the medical model and identify its pitfalls is more or less daunting depending on which "hat" a student wears. As support workers, it can be unsettling to confront how one's role within the system may be part of the problem. The task isn't to blame workers, but to acknowledge how the system indoctrinates support workers to uphold medical model ideologies and oppressive practices. I believe it takes time to become comfortable enough to think critically about the ideologies of the workplace and to question them inside and outside of the classroom. Gaining that critical analysis from a distance is one thing. But learning how to analyze one's own position is another. Coming to acknowledge that one's perspective and analysis need to change can cause one to feel defensive. After all, some students arrive at Disability Studies to become better workers and advocates. Some of us do not expect to radically change how we think and what we do.

Terry Poirier, an alumnus, reflecting back on this dilemma as he completed the first course in the program, was alarmed when he was challenged by his professors in the first course. When Terry learned about the social model of disability, he thought it was unrealistic. Knowing institutional policies and practice well, Terry thought he knew the needs of the people he supported, and he wondered why the faculty couldn't see that (T. Poirier, personal communication, February, 2008).

After some exploration and time in the program, however, a shift begins to happen and students start to look within. It is scary for workers and advocates, who come to the program for a better job, to realize what they do not know and how much they have to learn in order to "better" themselves. This realization puts workers in a vulnerable spot, knowing how far they have to go. This key moment in learning Disability Studies is about embracing vulnerability, coming to understand the firm grip that the medical model and normalcy have on all of us, and acknowledging that we're all implicated in the construction of normalcy.

Although there are many courses that are set up so that other key learning moments occur, this paper only address two Disability Studies courses at Ryerson. Some of the other required courses include leadership skills, a policy and rights issue course, media and social images of inequality, disability and technology, and a research course.

Later in the program, in the Community Building course, students are challenged to think about the bigger picture by looking at activism and community organizing. The second student paper, written by Heather when she was a student in the program, is an example of writing from this course. For this first assignment, students write a political autobiography within twenty-four hours, a purposely short period, to give them little time to edit their initial thoughts. The political autobiography provides a forum for students to locate themselves as political beings and to analyze their engagement with the study of disability issues.

In her autobiography, Heather analyzes some important moments in her life and politicizes them. Her story begins from her birth, when as an infant with Spina Bifida, her right to health care and existence was questioned by doctors. She draws out many instances that demonstrate her growing awareness of oppression. Some of the key learning moments that happened for Heather in this course can also occur in the first disability studies course. Heather provided me with some guidance to edit her paper for length.8

Making the Personal Political, Vision and Passion Find a Voice: Heather Willis

I was born in 1960, a year in which 80% of children born with Spina Bifida died. My parents were poor, not well educated and young. I believe my entry into the world is the beginning of my entity as a political being. I say this because shortly after my birth my father was given the "choice" to decide if I should be treated with life-preserving surgery. My father apparently responded with, "Why are you even asking me? Of course!"

Though I was never really physically abused by my mother, I suffered constant verbal abuse from her throughout my childhood. I think my mother felt a sense of powerlessness as at that time there were not supports available for families with children with disabilities. Consequently, I learned to be very quiet and stay out of her way. It would have made me very happy to have the power as a child to make myself invisible. My older sister became my protector and advocate. I will never forget the shame I felt during an incident where my sister yelled at my mother to stop calling me stupid. I was probably 10 years old at the time, and my six year-old sister was sticking up for me. I felt like I could not defend myself. Although at the time I did not understand the concept or have the words to express them, I was definitely becoming aware of my own sense of powerlessness.

I was not the same child at school that I was at home. I loved school because it got me away from my mother. Still, I did not like having to go to a different school than my siblings. I yearned to be able to go to school with them. I did not understand why I couldn't and it felt very unfair. Somehow I knew that there was more to it than just the stairs at my neighborhood school.

The sense of powerlessness I felt at home as a child was both alleviated and exacerbated when I went at age 10 to live at Bloorview, an institution for children and youth with disabilities. On the one hand, I was away from the oppressive presence of my mother. On the other, I was suddenly living in a regimented atmosphere with what seemed like a million rules and regulations. At Bloorview I was relatively independent compared with many of the children who lived there. Consequently, I did not share the vulnerability to the extent that others did, and I was spared many of the indignities to which they were subjected. However, I was witness to many injustices that had a profound effect on me. I recall a specific incident when I could hear a nurse berating another resident. I felt very angry and wanted to yell at her to leave the girl alone, but I felt powerless to do so.

Eventually I began to attend a regular public school outside of Bloorview. This was considered somewhat of a privilege, as integration of children with disabilities into the regular school system was still a rare thing at the time. The extreme contrast of day-to-day life in an institution and the relative normalcy of public school accentuated the abnormality of institutional life. I recall returning "home" from school one day when I was 16 after a typical day in the life of a high school student to then have my temperature and pulse taken, a part of the daily regimen. My sense of injustice grew as I realized how bizarre my life was in comparison to the lives of my high school friends.

It was about this time that I began to get involved in committees. I learned that there may be ways to effect change, though at Bloorview the efforts of residents rarely had any real impact. I knew that whatever I ended up doing when I "grew up" (until this time the possibilities in my mind had been restricted to secretarial type work) I wanted to "make a difference."

Not all my experiences at Bloorview were negative. Aside from meeting people who would become role models, I also met a staff member whose positive impact on me was life altering. When at age 14 I expressed an interest in wheelchair sports after seeing a film he brought in on the Paralympics, he made it possible and soon I was racing. My self esteem was improved when I started to compete at events and I was exposed to disabled adults who were living what I considered to be "normal" lives, with families, jobs etc. This was a huge revelation to me. I began to envision what might be possible for me in the future.

Upon leaving Bloorview at age 18, I felt ill equipped to tackle the world. With my grade twelve education, I attempted to seek employment. I soon found that not only did I lack skills and experience, but when I revealed that I used a wheelchair when enquiring about job openings, I was quickly told they were not accessible or that the position had been filled. While I eventually did find employment, it was in clerical work.

Eventually I drew closer to doing work that was more meaningful than simple clerical work when I enrolled in a Community Worker program at Community College. I knew it was what I was looking for when I was told that Community Workers seek to change the community while Social Workers aim to change individuals. During this time I met a man named Richard who changed my life. Richard was not unlike many of the kids that I had grown up with at Bloorview. He had Cerebral Palsy, had been considered "uneducable," and had spent 25 years attending a workshop where he had done little more than watch others perform menial tasks. Richard was 47 years old when I met him and had recently been moved to the chronic care ward at a local hospital. He was sad and frustrated and yet had a magnetic personality that drew people to him. His story made me angry and I wanted to do something to help him. Determined to do something, I enlisted the help of a friend and we created a support circle. The highlight of my experience with Richard was the day we literally broke him out of his hospital prison and moved him to a group home. At the time I felt that if I was never involved in anything as important again, being part of Richard's emancipation would be enough. Richard passed away several years ago, yet I continue to learn from the experience.

Following my graduation from George Brown College I began working in a position which involved assisting clients at Sunnybrook Centre for Independent Living to access funding for various assistive devices. At first it was a wonderful challenge and I felt like I was able to make a meaningful contribution. But eventually I felt stuck; I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with what has cynically been referred to as the "phys-diz-biz" — — the business of disability. It has been said, "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem," and I often struggle with the dilemma of whether or not to continue to attempt to influence the organization from the inside, or whether it would be better to abandon it and fight it from the outside. Then one day I came across an article in Abilities Magazine about the Disability Studies Program. Again, my life changed.

In the first three years of the program I had many significant learning moments. When I was formally introduced to the social model of disability, it was incredibly validating to gain language for what I had for years been trying to articulate. Before I was exposed to the social model of disability, I would often explain my own perspective of disability from a social model perspective without knowing it. I would say "it is not my physical condition that disables me but rather the set of stairs between me and where I want to go, or the attitudes and norms that prevent me from being a friend or getting a job."

Another significant learning moment was during a class exercise in a diversity course that involved examining aspects of our lives which privilege or disadvantage us. I realized that while I am a woman with a visible physical impairment, I am privileged in many aspects of my life and have a relative amount of power. Many of the students in our course, though "able-bodied," were from non-Canadian backgrounds and experienced tremendous oppression and discrimination as a result. Not only was I made more aware of the power I potentially possessed but also how important that awareness was, along with caution as to how it was employed.

Overall my life has been an ever-evolving journey from powerlessness to a sense of empowerment. This journey has been informed by my own personal experiences, seeing other people with disabilities being oppressed and finding ways to mitigate that oppression.

Naming, Politicizing, Action: Moving beyond the Classroom

Heather wrote this paper several years ago. Looking back at her paper she describes the writing process as cathartic as it was an outlet to name and politicize experiences that had not been articulated through writing. It was powerful for her to articulate the connections between her life experiences and the way that people with disabilities are treated in Western culture.

Heather's recognition upon learning about the social model demonstrates the significance of learning to put words to gut feelings — instances that feel problematic but are difficult to name before formally learning a vocabulary and theory of oppression. As disabled people, advocates and workers, we know the problems well before we come to the classroom. It is our ability to locate and name the "problem" that changes.

Vision and passion alone only carry students so far. Fuelled with passion for change, an understanding of how ableism works, and new tools for analysis and language, students are eager to apply theory to practice. Once students are able to identify what and where the "problems" are located, they feel an urgency to act. This is where (for lack of a better phrase) the "shoulds" come in — students are aware of how things should be and that something needs to change, but they need to learn to put theory into practice. It takes time, sometimes years, to develop those skills. Since many students in the Disability Studies program are adult learners, wearing multiple hats at a time, they continually learn these skills beyond the academy — — on the job, in activist work, and during personal time.

In order to be open to learning and change, it becomes necessary to realize that change starts from within. Students realize the responsibility each of us has to shift thinking, regardless of our current embodiment. This key learning moment, which was briefly discussed when I referenced Terry Poirier who first felt defensive before becoming open to learning, has several steps and emotions attached to it. Moving into action, according to Tina, a social work student who recently took an introductory Disability Studies course, is a "painful and exciting experience" (T. Hjorngaard, personal communication, June 2008).

Ryerson's Disability Studies curriculum addresses practice-based situations and activist issues inside and outside of classroom activities. But the challenge of moving lessons beyond the classroom still remains. From my experience I can attest to the struggle of figuring out how to actually make action happen: What does action look like? And what needs to happen personally and professionally to apply theory outside of the classroom? This paper only offers a glimpse into what moving into action entails.

So how is that transition made? Many students quickly realize that allies are vital. As mentioned earlier, going back to work after the comfort of having allies in the room can be unsettling and distressing. Geographically many students are not aligned with each other, travelling from various parts of the province and the country to Ryerson. A large portion of the remainder of course work is completed online. Students and alumni stay in touch with one another via an electronic discussion board, sharing disability related news, events and rants. Writing rants or discussion board posts is one way students and alumni think through what tools and methods to use to facilitate action and change. Some of us rant about less than desirable situations at work, lack of disability content in other university courses, and about community organizing. There are several lively conversations happening at once. Students and alumni write these posts hoping to find solutions and ways to deal with the said issue. As a community, we teach and learn from each other. Often times, from these conversations, students and alumni pick up the pieces of action, complimenting what is taught in the classroom. As a result, the electronic discussion board is one forum where theory and practice meet.

Many of our workplaces are loaded with possibilities and dilemmas. Throughout the program students may make several job changes, if not an entirely different career move, out of frustration and angst directed at the system. Sometimes the environments in which students work become to be too far away from the politics we have come to know. In order to take care of ourselves we move on and pursue other opportunities. When students graduate, the learning begins all over again as one learns to unlearn and undo.

Unlearning is a long process, which, in my experience, started during undergraduate school, extended into graduate school and is still in progress. It has taken time for my critical thinking skills to be refined and tested outside of the classroom.

One example of unlearning is overcoming the overcoming narrative. In the beginning of my studies, I was consumed with the overcoming narrative. I thought I would "overcome" some of "my problems" if I just worked hard enough. It wasn't until later in the program that I learned that there is nothing to overcome within myself, but I needed to fight back the shaming words and practices which defined me as a not "capable" of being an academic. I witnessed this process with some of my peers who were also uncertain about their ability to be a "good" student. As we progressed through the program, new doors and opportunities arose, and we raised the bar for ourselves and for disability rights in general.


Disability Studies provides us with a forum to write about, and from, our subjectivities, to take up space and discuss issues we haven't had the opportunity before to discuss freely, and to form a critical perspective. The lived experiences we bring into the classroom offer us much to learn from. Many students enter Disability Studies with passion for change and a vision for better things to come. Many of us begin our studies thinking we won't be touched personally, but many are. Some of the key learning moments that have been presented in this paper reiterate that learning "to do Disability Studies" is about engaging with ourselves. As we come to embrace the ways that disability touches us, and learn from disabled voices and perspectives, we create new possibilities and visions for everyone. The tools we learn in our studies translate into action with practice and over time. These key learning moments in Disability Studies are not meant to suggest a linear learning trajectory for students but some common paradigm shifts that students go through. I hope that in sharing some of our collective visions, passions and actions for disability organizing and Disability Studies we will continue to attract a student body that is diverse and ready to continue to push the limits of making the personal political.


I am very grateful for the support I received from everyone at the School of Disability Studies to write this paper. I am especially thankful to Esther Ignagni and Melanie Panitch who provided me with insightful feedback that greatly shaped this paper. I am also thankful for the input from Kathryn Church and David Reville as this paper was being developed. Tanya Gulliver provided timely assistance with editing. I would also like to extend thanks to the editors of this edition of DSQ for providing me with such thoughtful feedback.


Jennifer Paterson received a Developmental Service Worker Diploma, a BA from Ryerson's School of Disability Studies and a MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University. Currently she works for the School of Disability Studies as a mentor and student engagement facilitator.

Jessica Hogan has a diploma in Social Service Work from Sheridan College. She has worked for the Peel District School Board as a Special Needs Educational Resource Facilitator and more recently as a private respite worker. She began the Disability Studies program at Ryerson University in 2007 and hopes to graduate in 2011. She plans to pursue a career in Special Education or further her education in Animal Assisted Therapy supporting people with disabilities.

Heather Willis is a lifelong disability activist/advocate. She is a graduate of Ryerson's Disability Studies program and a member of multiple organizations with specific interests in healthcare and disability arts. Heather is employed in the healthcare sector, helping people access funding for assistive devices.

Works Cited

  • Capponi, P. (1997).

    Disaster preparedness. In Dispatches from the poverty line. Toronto: Penguin Books.
  • Poirier, T. (2008). Personal communication. February 2008.
  • Hjorngaard, T. (2008). Personal communication. June 2008.


  1. I mostly discuss the process toward a changed understanding from the perspective of students who have worked in disability support jobs. The perspective and journey of disabled students are only touched upon, and parent advocates are missing from this paper.
    Return to Text
  2. In Canada, community college is not an undergraduate degree. Students earn a diploma. Most programs are career oriented. The curriculum is fairly practice based. Most college programs run from one to three years. Many students in the Disability Studies program at Ryerson are graduates of Developmental Services Worker programs that teach students how to support people with intellectual disabilities. The curriculum usually includes pharmacology, health care, support strategies, communication/interpersonal skills training. It always includes a practicum.
    Return to Text
  3. The curriculum at Ryerson's School of Disability Studies is inclusive of the lived experience and narratives of psychiatric survivors among other disabled people. Pat Capponi is a leader in mental health care advocacy and is a writer.
    Return to Text
  4. Jessica's comment about depression being a real mental illness demonstrates how at the beginning of the course many of us do not have an understanding of how madness/disability is socially constructed and therefore assume that pathology is the truth. As we learn how to refine our analysis, we begin to question what is disability? What are other points of commonality and solidarity between disabled people beyond pathology?
    Return to Text
  5. NOW magazine is a popular free alterative news source in Toronto. It sometimes includes the voices of oppressed people. An American comparison to NOW magazine could be The Village Voice.
    Return to Text
  6. Mike Harris was elected as the Premier of Ontario in 1995. His neo conservative government set out policies such as workfare that had a significant impact on working class and poor people.
    Return to Text
  7. I use the term work very loosely. I refer to work to mean all types of work including unpaid labor and activist efforts that are often not recognized as labor.
    Return to Text
  8. Heather's original paper is longer and has some course related material in it.
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page