Instructor's Statement: Before and After

Diane Driedger
University of Manitoba

What do my students already know about disability, and how can I learn where they are located in their thinking at the beginning of the course? What do I want them to learn over the span of the course, and how do I measure that? These questions guided my preparation for an undergraduate course, Disability Studies I, I taught at the University of Winnipeg in 2006. I invited many guest speakers with disabilities to speak on topics such as women and disability, human rights, the disability movement, the Nazi extermination of disabled people, and international disability issues. I decided to scaffold my assignments — starting with what the student knows and then building upon that, with each subsequent assignment becoming more complex in terms of analytical skills required. The first "Self-Inventory" assignment, due the second week of class, asked students to tell me what they knew about disability and what their personal experiences of disability had been thus far. The companion assignment, "Self-Reflection," complemented the first one, and was due on the second-to-last day of class. In it, I asked students to explain in two or three pages what they did or did not learn in the Disability Studies I class. Between these two assignments, students reviewed a book written by a person with a disability and wrote a final research paper on a disability-related topic of their choice.

Not only were these "before" and "after" assignments interesting to read, but they taught me about disability. I, myself, have been living with fibromyalgia for 16 years and am a recent breast cancer survivor, yet I learned many new disability experiences from my students. Some students realized that they had a disability, especially those students with chronic illnesses, and learned that it was all right to discuss it; other students became aware that relatives, living with invisible disabilities or chronic illnesses that they had not previously considered as disabilities, were indeed disabled. Erin Lower's two pieces, presented below, describe her thinking about disability at the beginning of the class and demonstrate her growing understanding of disability studies concepts and identification with her own disability experience.


Erin Lower
September, 2006

To begin, I should explain my background and why I decided to take this course. I am a Bachelor of Education student in my second year, and although I am majoring in English and French, I am the type of person who is interested in developing the whole student, including social development, rather than just academics. I am filling up my elective course spaces with courses in Sociology, Conflict Resolution Studies and Disability Studies because I feel that in order to develop the whole student, I first need the knowledge and skills to do so. I feel that this Disability Studies course will help me to better understand and educate students who are differently abled.

I currently work in a daycare as a childcare assistant, and I frequently substitute as an inclusion worker with children who are differently abled. Our job is not to segregate these children from the others, but rather to help them integrate themselves into play and activities where they might have difficulties. We help them only when they need and ask for it. Otherwise, we just facilitate activities and play along with them! One of the beliefs that I have come into this class with is that people with any kind of disability should live an independent life and receive help only in the areas in which they feel that they have need. I believe that forcing "help" onto people, especially from an early age, hampers their learning experiences and prevents their development and abilities. Therefore, society handicaps people by forcing those with disabilities to have decisions made for them and tasks done for them.

I am also someone who feels that chronic illness can be seen as a disability. I don't think that every disabled person is chronically ill, but I feel that chronic illness can be a disability that should be recognized as such. I know that many critics and academics disagree, believing that an illness such as diabetes does not present the same obstacles as being mentally or physically disabled does. However, my own definition of disability is a condition that is a permanent factor in making someone's needs for daily life challenging based on the ideals of society.

Another somewhat controversial opinion that I have is that chemical imbalances can be considered disabilities. In this I include hormonal imbalances that cause people health and emotional problems, as well as disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsiveness, and other serotonin-related disorders. Many people do not understand that these are real and very difficult disorders to deal with in daily life, or that they are often passed on genetically. I have been dealing with an anxiety disorder since I reached puberty (a common onset time), and I consider it to be a disability.

I understand that this may sound callous, but I have a problem with people (disabled or not) feeling sorry for themselves on a permanent basis. I believe that everyone has challenges in life and obstacles that they must work with, and a disability is no reason to pity oneself and focus on that disability. The key, in my mind, is to do something about it or fight back, rather than to say, "Oh, poor disabled me!"

An idea that I will stand strongly beside for the rest of my life is that any disability is a state of mind. I am not suggesting that someone who is blind can make themselves see or anything that radical. What I am suggesting is that anyone can overcome the perceived obstacles that their disability creates. For example, there are a number of situations that trigger my anxiety, and for a very long time I avoided these situations at all costs. If I did not, I would have anxiety attacks so severe that I would often weep uncontrollably with fear or even faint. Then, one day, I started gradually approaching the things that made me anxious. While I still get some attacks (this is unavoidable, as some of them come for no apparent reason), I find that I am able to control many others that are fed by myself.

Another example of this idea is illustrated by a story of a friend of mine, who became a wheelchair user (paraplegic) at age 14. We rode horses together when we were young, but after the accident she was told that she would never ride again. Three years later, she fought all barriers facing her. We carried her out of the house while her parents (who did NOT approve) were out, drove her to the farm, and she rode in front of me on my horse using my arms around her for balance; she no longer needs this adaptation — just a side walker in case of bumps. She may not be able to ride in the same way she used to, but she can most certainly ride.

I think that this course will certainly educate me about many of the stigmas surrounding people who are disabled. I expect that it will also make me realize what sorts of barriers are erected by society unknowingly and inconsiderately. I hope to grow in my knowledge of disabilities, and I also look forward to learning to see things from the point of view of people who consider themselves disabled or nondisabled. I'm not sure if this course will change all of the views that I have written about, but I always try to be open minded and accept others' opinions and ideas.


Erin Lower
December, 2006

Over the past few months, I feel that I have learned a great deal about life with disabilities, and I think that some of my attitudes and ideas about disability have also changed. The things that I have learned vary widely, including new words and terms, issues specific to women with disabilities, the types of disability movement groups that exist and what they represent, and specific information on certain disabilities. Most importantly, many ideas that I had about myself have changed.

Although learning new words and terms might seem like a trivial aspect of this course, I feel that these words are extremely important. I have learned that words developed by disabled people help to empower us in ways that other words simply cannot. By making the terms for their own concerns, people with disabilities have given those words power, positive power that they now hold. Terms such as "wheelchair user" are empowering because they give a truer sense of their meaning. For example, the reason that "wheelchair user" is preferable to "wheelchair bound person" is that it shows how freeing a wheelchair is to its user. The person is no longer "bound" but is now able to move around without restraint (Enns).

The things that I have learned about the barriers faced by women with disabilities have made me more aware of my own barriers in life. Society is set up in such a way that disabled women are doubly discriminated against; we are both women and disabled. We represent two minority groups and so we experience the difficulties of both, and more. We are excluded partially from each of these two groups because each thinks that we are more a part of the other.

However, there are other groups that couple the two characteristics of being female and being disabled, and they are interested in issues specific to disabled women (Pane). The disability groups of which I speak are groups that represent the disability movement. They are many and include groups such as Council of Canadians with Disabilities (all disabled people) and DAWN Canada (DisAbled Women's Network of Canada, specific to disabled women). These groups actively try to improve conditions in Canada and across the world for disabled people. They also have a great deal of information for disabled people to research issues, and they educate the general public about disability concerns. These groups are slowly but surely gaining power to change society and its views of disability and subsequently to remove barriers that prevent disabled citizens from experiencing many things that able bodied people do (DAWN).

The most important thing that I am taking with me from this class is a better understanding of myself and my identity. Shortly after I began this class I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Although I have likely had it for about two years, giving it a title took some adjusting. On one hand, I felt a great deal of relief knowing that I am not lazy, and that there is nothing serious (such as cancer, or something else life threatening) to worry about. However, I also felt a sense of dread that this will never end or go away. I felt immediate panic; what if I couldn't handle teaching, which is my lifelong dream? Over the next few months, I learned that there were others in the class (including a professor!) who have fibromyalgia as well, and this was a relief to me like no other. Suddenly, I had reassurance that this condition was manageable; I had contact with others who were not "lazy" people who did nothing with their lives. I also began to develop a sense of association with other women with disabilities and have since expanded that to experiencing pride in that association.

Although I feel that I started this class as a very tolerant person who accepted people with disabilities, I now identify with the title "disabled." There is a great difference between understanding a culture and being a part of it; I am now a part of the disabled culture and I am proud of this. This course has helped me to transition to that point and, coupled with a lot of new knowledge, this is what I have to take with me.

Works Cited

  • Enns, Ruth. A Voice Unheard, the Latimer Case and People with Disabilities. Halifax: Fernwood, 1999.
  • DisAbled Women's Network of Canada (DAWN). "Our Mission Statement." 4 Dec. 2003. Retrieved 20 Oct. 2006 <>. (See for current version.)
  • Pane, Lina G. "Women - Moving Beyond the Disability." 4th International Abilympics Conference (1995). Winnipeg. 12 Oct. 2006.


Erin Lower will complete her B.Arts from the University of Winnipeg this year and begin studying Computer Analysis/Programming. Her passions include equestrian sports, yoga and lifelong learning.

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