While browsing WesMaps to select courses for next semester, you may have noticed the recent addition of a “Disability Studies” course cluster and may be wondering what Disability Studies is, or how courses were chosen to be included in the cluster.

As shown by the existence of numerous Disability Studies programs and departments at universities across the country, as well as major texts such as the Modern Language Association’s Disability Studies Reader (now in its third edition), Disability Studies is a widely recognized field. Wesleyan should be proud to formally acknowledge this boundary-pushing discipline.

Disability Studies investigates ways certain bodies are marked as the norm, and others as “abnormal.” Disability Studies scholars reject the idea that some people simply “are” objectively disabled, and instead contest this categorization and its consequences for individuals and society as a whole. Because of this focus on norms and the social construction of difference, Disability Studies is not a marginal special interest concern, but rather addresses issues that affect all of us in our daily lives.

Disability Studies is a field akin to many of the other interdisciplinary disciplines that are studied at Wesleyan, in that it questions normality and demands that oppressive institutions and norms be identified and challenged, with the goal of creating a just society for people with all types of bodies and identities. Disability Studies takes an intersectional approach and considers the ways in which able-bodiedness operates differently in the lives of people of different races, genders, socio-economic classes, religions, etc.

So what does this have to do with the course cluster? You may have noticed that the course cluster is surprisingly diverse and draws from a number of different departments and divisions. We believe that Disability Studies’ broad concern with normalization necessitates this interdisciplinary nature. Each course in the cluster contributes a different but important perspective and way of framing, understanding, and studying disability. For example, American Sign Language courses discuss Deaf culture and identity, and many Deaf people’s rejection of the label “disabled.” Neuroscience classes give insight into how disability is biomedically constructed and studied, and thus inform social science courses that may discuss topics such as biopower and the privileging of particular types of knowledge, and how these impact individuals’ identities, rights, and access to care.

Within the past two weeks, there has been some controversy about the inclusion of Queer Studies within the Disability Studies cluster. It seems that some people view this inclusion as implicating queer individuals as disabled. First, we’d like to point out that the fear of being labeled as disabled is evident of the dominant ableist perspective in our society, and second, we’d like to explain why this course is included in the cluster.

Queer Studies is concerned with identities and institutions outside of sexuality while queer theory works to challenge norms. In fact, one might consider Disability Studies, and certainly its radical form, Crip Theory, a subset of Queer Theory, in that Queer Theory argues for the dismantling of oppressive norms and institutions. Therefore, by including Queer Studies, the faculty involved in the creation of this cluster is not implying that (sexually) queer people are disabled, but rather that Queer Studies/Theory has much to offer students interested in critically examining disability.

We believe that Disability Studies is an important academic field that calls into question and offers new ways of viewing societal norms and institutions.  The new Disability Studies course cluster is an exciting and significant curricular development at Wesleyan, toward which many faculty and students have put much energy and thought. We also hope that this article and the introduction of Disability Studies at Wesleyan challenge the Wesleyan community to reach beyond their prior assumptions and towards a new model of disability.


Schwartz and Stout can be contacted with questions and/or comments at wesdisabilityrights@gmail.com.

Stout and Schwartz are members of the class of 2012.


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