New disability studies minor to be offered fall 2017

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A new, interdisciplinary minor in disability studies will be an option for University of Oregon students starting in fall 2017.

The establishment of the program came after months of strong support from faculty and students alike through the Disability Studies Initiative.

Operating out of the UO College of Arts and Sciences, the program will include courses from architecture, literature, law, education, gender studies, anthropology, geography, international studies and arts administration in an effort to provide students a comprehensive understanding on the social, historical and political framing of disability.

“Disability is a central aspect of human diversity, yet there is little discussion of it in the UO curriculum for a general audience,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, a professor in the Department of English and an influential Disability Studies advocate. “For students with disabilities, it’s crucial to have their histories, cultures, experiences, voices and viewpoints given pride of place at the university.”

A pilot course, titled “Life Stories: A Disability Studies Off-Campus Seminar” will set the stage for the new program in spring 2016. The course, created and taught by Wheeler, will foster a consistent interaction between members of the community that experience some sort of developmental disability and undergraduate students on campus.

“It is important to create community partnerships, because disability is a lived experience and an experience lived in communities, not an abstract topic for books alone,” Wheeler said. “Through their field work, UO students will see how disability looks across the life span, from small children to elderly people, and how society supports or frustrates their endeavors. Additionally, community-based education breaks down barriers between young people included in higher education and those who are excluded, such as those with intellectual disabilities.”

The program and seminar are sponsored largely by a Tom and Carol Williams grant.

In conjunction with the pilot course this spring, prominent disability studies professor and author Eli Clare will be on campus to give a free public lecture titled “Notes on Cure, Disability, and Natural Worlds.” The event will take place on Tuesday, April 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Giustina Ballroom in the Ford Alumni Center. Clare’s talk, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Disability Studies Initiative, will focus on the concepts of the words “natural” and “normal” through a lens of disability politics and environmental justice.

Then, to kick off the official start to the new program, a Disability Studies Faculty Development Seminar, hosted at the UO, will be held from June 14-17. Scholars from around the country will gather in Eugene to not only celebrate the implementation of the new program, but also to develop new courses and a common curriculum for it.

For students taking the minor program, 24 credits will be required.

“This degree will prepare students for the many kinds of disability-related careers which are expanding with the aging U.S. population and the growth of technology,” Wheeler said. “It can lead to careers in product and interior design, adaptive computing, arts and recreation, family and senior services, along with many other areas.”

Finch Byrd, an undergraduate comparative literature student, believes the new option will not only provide a solid foundation on which to launch a career in one of those fields, but it will also  help many students understand disabilities and how they affect our society.

Byrd hopes the all-inclusive program will eventually grow into a major at the university.

“For me, it means that I'm going to be able to study the culture of disabled people — a group which I’m a part of — and learn about the discrimination faced by people with minds and/or bodies that differ from the societally accepted norm in ways that mine don't, and to identify how I can help combat this discrimination,” Byrd said. “I hope that the introduction of disability studies means that the UO is on its way to becoming a more welcoming and accommodating place for disabled people.”

—By Nathaniel Brown, University Communications

»This story has been updated to indicate that the minor will be available in fall 2017, not fall 2016 as originally stated.