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Disability Studies: The Intersection of Curricula and the Human Experience

By Kim E. Nielsen

Dan Wilkins, Director of Public Relations for the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, and Nicholas Hyndman, University of Toledo student double-majoring in Disability Studies and Business Administration
Dan Wilkins, Director of Public Relations for the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, and Nicholas Hyndman, University of Toledo student double-majoring in Disability Studies and Business Administration. Photo credit: Kim E. Nielsen

“I’ve never been this excited about my education before,” my student said as we discussed his undergraduate B.A. degree in Disability Studies. Then he laughed at himself with astonishment. Because of his commitment to the topic, he also was working harder in his college coursework than he ever had before; and he’d never imagined that academic hard work and excitement could go together. This student, like all of our students, came to the University of Toledo’s Disability Studies Program seeking a future job (for himself) and justice (for all).

This fall the University of Toledo (Ohio) launched the nation’s first undergraduate, interdisciplinary B.A. in Disability Studies. Enabled by a significant endowment from The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, and with support from our campus leadership, we’ve hired marvelous faculty. We’re drawing in marvelous students. We’re hearing from interested employers who want our students as interns and future employees. Our courses prepare students for employment by enabling them to better understand the world around them, think about the future, and solve problems. We offer courses on literature and poetry, history, public policy, law, health care systems, and sexuality through a disability analysis. Some of our students are disabled; some are not.

A Disability History of the United StatesIn Disability Studies we don’t diagnose individual bodies and thought processes. For that students can go elsewhere. Instead, our students learn to diagnose why, as the US Department of Labor reported in 2013, 82.4% of people with disabilities were unemployed. Our students learn to diagnose why, as Halloween draws near, those making money by staging haunted houses often advertise that they do so from the grounds of “former insane asylums”—and why those who pay to visit haunted houses find that both terrifying and funny. Our students figure out solutions. Our students who become human resource managers will be better human resource managers because they know something about the nearly twenty percent of the U.S. population who has a disability. Our students who become policy makers will do so thinking of a community’s wide-ranging diversity. Our students who go on to work at art museums will do so thinking about accessibility broadly defined and the beauty of all bodies. Our students will be better employees and they will be better employers.

What began in October of 1945 as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week has become Disability Employment Awareness Month. This is a marvelous time to proclaim the need for more Disability Studies programs. 

Resisting the pressure to monetize everything in education, I also want to state strongly that Disability Studies courses enable students to better deal with the vagaries of life. All of us either are or know people who live with disability. Knowing that disability is not tragedy, and that disability is simply part of the human experience, enables all of us to better savor the human experience.

This week another one of UT’s delightful students told me with horror and astonishment that some universities lacked Disability Studies programs. Could I believe it? “How do students learn these things?” she asked.  

How indeed.


About the Author 

Kim E. NielsenThe author of three books, including two on Helen Keller and one on Anne Sullivan Macy, Kim E. Nielsen is professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo.