Disability Studies: Is it the Field for You?

Blog: Disability Studies: Is it the Field for You?

What’s your major? Increasingly, college students are answering that question with “disability studies.”

In recent years, four-year colleges and universities such as CUNY (City University of New York), Arizona State University, Toledo University and University of Illinois have added disability studies to the menu of undergraduate programs they offer. More commonly, countless institutions of higher learning offer associate degrees, minors, certificates, interdisciplinary programs and graduate degrees in disabilities studies. Meanwhile, colleges and universities that have not initiated such programs of study are forming committees to discuss how best to do so.

But what is disability studies?

University of California, Berkeley’s website explains the field of disability studies like this:

“Disability studies provides a space to explore questions like these: How has disability been defined in various historical moments, in various cultures and eras? While impairment has unquestionably been a frequent experience throughout human history, has disability –the construction of impairment as a generic social category — been a historical constant, or is it a modern invention? What social ideologies, cultural systems, and societal arrangements have shaped the meaning and experience of disability? How has disability been defined or represented in cultural and artistic productions, public laws and policies, modern professional practices and in everyday life?”

CUNY, the first university to offer a bachelor’s degree in disability studies, defines the field like this:

“Disability Studies is an emerging academic field that explores disability and society through the lens of overlapping perspectives, including social sciences, humanities, science, and the law.”

Note that both descriptions reflect a relatively new understanding that the implications of disability go way beyond health and medical considerations. Instead, schools that offer disability studies programs recognize that disability, which affects at least 25% of the population in one way or another, intersects every aspect of our lives. As our population ages, more of us will become disabled. That means professionals who understand the challenges that individuals with disabilities face, will play a more important role than ever before.

Still, students concerned about how they will find jobs after college may have questions about how a degree in disability studies will pay off. No worries there. Graduates of disability studies programs will be prepared for careers and/or graduate work in a range of professions including special education, social work, physical, speech, rehabilitation and occupational therapy, sociology, anthropology, law, public health, architecture, design, engineering and more.

Regardless of what graduate program or career disability studies students choose, they will enter their fields with a breadth of knowledge about issues such as inclusion, accessibility, human rights, education and health policy. They will also have the personal and professional satisfaction of knowing that their expertise will almost certainly improve the lives of disabled individuals, and their families.