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Faculty/Staff Guide: Integrating Disability Studies into Existing Curriculum


by: Rose Sachs, LCSW-C

Individuals with disabilities comprise approximately one-fifth of the total population in the United States (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1994-95), the nation's largest minority group. And yet, people with disabilities continue to be excluded from discourse on difference and diversity. People with disabilities are viewed neither as a minority group from the perspective of that which constitutes and defines minority nor as a minority group from the perspective of how cultural institutions produce, perpetuate, and justify hierarchal societies. Unlike members of minorities classified by race, class, ethnicity, and gender, who are seen as ordinary variations within the major culture, disability is perceived as extraordinary, despite the numbers that alone would contradict this perception. Poet and essayist, Audrey Lorde (1984), defined herself as a Black, lesbian feminist, a member of several minority groups; she was also disabled. In "Age, Race, Class, and Sex," Lorde (1984) defines the outsider, the individual of minority status, as one who differs from the major population, the desired and mythical norm: he who is: "white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure." Disability is not mentioned.  

Although disability intersects all other minority populations, people with disabilities have been overlooked by, and in many cases, categorically excluded from, rights seeking movements: the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, The Gay Rights Movement. Moreover, in activities aimed at understanding, accepting, and celebrating diversity, both in academia and the work world, people with disabilities are rarely assigned minority status, rarely included as a discrete and disenfranchised population with a collective history, a collective experience, and a collective voice. The purpose of this discussion is to create a foundation for viewing disability as a minority model and a social, political, and economic construct and to establish the integration of this paradigm into existing curriculum at an introductory course level, particularly in a community college environment, as a necessary component of social change.

Paradigms of Disability

Three paradigms for examining disability have emerged; each is rooted in its explanation of the problem and who holds the problem and in its notion of how the problem should be addressed and by whom. The Morality Model, the first and oldest model of disability, proffers that disability is caused by moral lapse and brings shame to the individual and to the family. Disability is viewed as the outward manifestation of inner evil or depravity. Erving Goffman (1963) describes the stigma of disability as "bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier." The disabled person is "a blemished person…polluted…to be avoided." Moreover, historically, rendering someone disabled as punishment for a crime or perceived crime was standard practice (Goffman, 1963). Within many cultures, this practice has continued into the twenty-first century.

During the mid-1800's, with developments in the medical and rehabilitation fields, the Medical Model emerged. This view is not one bound to morality, but rather to pathology. Although less damning than the Morality Model, the concentration is still on the disability, not on the person with the disability or the experience of disability. The primary aim of the Medical Model is to correct and cure. Disability is viewed as a disaster, something to fix. Clearly, the many medical and technological advances have come out of this perspective have significantly contributed to the comfort and range of opportunities for people with disabilities. And although rehabilitation and accommodation remain critical to the lives of individuals with disabilities, the Medical Model places the decisions about the well-being of persons with disabilities outside of their purview, is paternalistic, perpetuates the negative image of disability and of persons with disabilities, and further promotes segregation.

The Minority Model, which informs Disability Studies, presents the experience of disability as seen through the lens of those persons with disabilities and characterizes that experience as socially, politically, and economically constructed. The Minority Model is not the study of disability, but rather, the study of the shared experience of disability. Lennard Davis (1997), in The Disability Studies Reader, contends that "we live in a world of norms." The problem with disability, then, is not the disability or the person with the disability, but rather the "the way that normalcy is constructed to create the 'problem' of the disabled person," stemming from the erroneous assumption that persons with disabilities are abnormal, and therefore undesirable (Davis, 1997). The problem of disability results from a hostile environment that does not accommodate persons with disabilities and that assigns them an inferior status. Jenny Morris (1991), in Pride Against Prejudice, examines the perception of disability from the perspective of the disabled person: "Our anger is not about having a 'chip on your shoulder', our grief is not a 'failure to come to terms with disability'. Our dissatisfaction with our lives is not a personality defect but a sane response to the oppression we experience (Morris, 1991)."

Minority Status

Despite individual differences, members of any minority group share a common experience, resulting from how they are perceived and treated by the dominant culture. According to Rhoda Olkin (1999), a psychotherapist and woman with a disability, the shared experience, the core experience of all minority groups is "prejudice, discrimination, and stigma." Individuals not part of the mainstream population are traditionally seen as inferior; they have few positive role models and few positive images within the arts and the media; they are underrepresented politically in terms of issues and as office holders; they have significantly limited access to economic resources; they have little to no political or social power; and they are summarily excluded from the mainstream of life's opportunities (Olkin, 1999). Moreover, Audrey Lorde (1984) asserts that particularly in a capitalistic society "institutional rejection of difference is an absolute necessity" because we need "outsiders as surplus people;" thus, other is always assigned a position of inferiority. "We have no patterns for relating across human differences as equals." The assignation of inferiority is most compelling for people with disabilities, who are viewed as not merely different, but as damaged, not quite whole. According to Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997) in Extraordinary Bodies, disability is viewed as an "inferior state and a personal misfortune." Not only is prejudice associated with the recognition of difference, but, according to Jenny Morris (1991), "an integral part of this [recognition of difference] is the concept of normalcy." Unlike other variations that define difference from the majority population or the mythical norm, disability is viewed as inherently abnormal and extraordinary. Demographics alone support that disability is not extraordinary, but rather, according to Phyllis Rubenfeld, an "ordinary variation, like gender, race or ethnicity (Ramirez, 1997)." And, like gender, race, and ethnicity, disability is a descriptor of minority status, and, thus, a defining factor in social, political, and economic oppression.

Unique Characteristics of Disability

The issues of disability and the experience of individuals with disabilities are complex and confounded by several factors that distinguish this group from other minority populations. Medical, physical, learning, and/or psychological effects of disability may cause pain and fatigue, may be time consuming, and may impact on mobility and physical access. At the very least, having a disability often necessitates planning and may involve depending on others to participate in major activities of daily life. The need for involvement with professionals, such as physicians, physical therapists, psychotherapists, and/or learning specialists, tends to promote and reinforce inferior status. Unlike most members of most other minority groups, the person with a disability may be, and frequently is, the only family member who belongs to this particular minority; thus, the lack of a sense of belonging typically occurs even within one's own family. Developing a community of others who share the experience of disability and/or community support is often problematic as well, due to the wide range of types, onset, severity, and effects of disability and the complications involving access and transportation.

A critical factor that separates persons with disabilities from other minority groups is that anyone may join at any time; minority status may or may not be conferred at birth. Although not the case globally, the largest population of individuals with disabilities in the United States is the elderly. Most everyone, then, if s/he lives long enough, will, indeed, become disabled. Because membership is a clear and almost inevitable prospect; because the social identity of people with disabilities is one of stigma; because people with disabilities are devalued, discredited, and discounted, and because the prevailing image of people with disabilities, which is internalized by both disabled and non-disabled persons, is wholly negative, fear evoked by disability is pervasive throughout history and across cultures.

Disability Studies

According to Robert Funk (1987), "historically, the inferior economic and social status of disabled people has been viewed as the inevitable consequence of the physical and mental differences imposed by disability." The underlying premise of Disability Studies is that the barriers to integration faced by disabled people are not inevitable, but rather, the result of discriminatory practices and policies that arise from unfounded stereotypes, erroneous assumptions, negative perceptions and, thus, deeply rooted prejudice toward disabled people (Funk, 1987). The barriers to a full range of life's opportunities are socially, not inherently, constructed. Disability Studies distinguishes between the demands of an impairment, a biological reality, and the effects of disability within a social, political, and economic context.

The charge, then, of Disability Studies is to challenge and deconstruct these currently held myths, stereotypes, assumptions, and perceptions about people with disabilities; to examine disability within the contexts of culture and history; to explore the shared experience of disability from a cross-disability perspective; and to develop a view of persons with disabilities within a minority model that reflects and honors their collective voice. The Society for Disability Studies (2000) defines the mission of the field as one that "encourages perspectives that place disability in social, cultural, and political contexts" and seeks "to augment the understanding of disability in all cultures and historical periods, to promote greater awareness of the experiences of disabled people, and to contribute to social change."

Teaching at the Introductory Course/Community College Level

Currently, Disability Studies is mainly a graduate-level field of study; few undergraduate classes or programs exist. Moreover, the discourse and literature on Disability Studies is fairly erudite and scholarly, rendering the body of emerging analysis and knowledge available and accessible only to a few, many of whom have preexisting knowledge and interest in the field. Because consciousness raising is a critical first step to all social and political change, it is important to include disability as a social construct at the introductory course level and to include disability in any course that examines the experience of discrete groups within the broader society, that surveys history, and that explores the ways in which image is developed and portrayed. Rather than creating a separate course at the introductory level, integrating Disability Studies into existing curriculum and from an interdisciplinary perspective affords basic understanding and education for all students and expands understanding of diversity and minority construction for both faculty and students.

Including disability with race, class, ethnicity, and gender promotes a realistic view of disability and a positive attitude toward people with disabilities, which serves to empower students with disabilities. Segregation and exclusion have been the most damaging realities for people with disabilities; despite current laws aimed at protecting disabled persons and mandating access to employment, education, transportation, and public accommodations, the history and experience of disability must be incorporated into academia in order to dissolve the erroneous beliefs and negative attitudes that create barriers to a full range of life's opportunities and shape the lives of disabled persons. In addition to sociology, history, and the humanities, the experience of people with disabilities, the assumptions about people with disabilities, and the ways in which those assumptions mold the treatment of people with disabilities need to be explored in coursework in the fields of psychology, human development, law, political science, public policy, Afro-American Studies, Hispanic Studies, Asian Studies, Gay/Lesbian Studies, Women's Studies, as well as history of film, theater, and art. In that popular culture both reflects and creates societal notions, the images of persons with disabilities needs to be incorporated in courses that examine the media: advertisement, television, and journalism.

Teaching Models

Rhoda Olkin (1999) characterizes the "key impediments for any minority group (as) prejudice and discrimination, social isolation, unequal treatment, economic dependence, high unemployment and underemployment, inferior housing, and a higher rate of institutionalization." Along with race, gender, class, and ethnicity, disability is a determining factor in defining minority. The experience of individuals with disabilities as a minority population needs to be explored in sociology courses in terms of social construction: how people are viewed; how they are portrayed in the media and popular culture; how language affects image; how disability is viewed in different cultures; how issues of disability have been treated within other social theories, such as Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, gay/lesbian studies, and postconstructuralism; how disability intersects with race, gender, sexual orientation, and class; and how disability affects and pertains to multiculturalism. In addition, sociology courses need to look at the ways in which disability is a signifier of power and how this affects not only people with disabilities, but produces, perpetuates, and justifies hierarchal societies as well.

The experience of individuals with disabilities needs to be integrated into history courses wherever minority experiences are taught. In addition to examining the major events and influences concerning disability and disability activism, such as the Independent Living Movement, the Disability Rights Movement, and the passage of 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and ADA, past and current impact on people with disabilities within key aspects of American history, such as immigration restriction, citizenship, civil rights, evolutionary theory, and eugenics needs to be incorporated as well.

The history of civil rights for individuals with disabilities needs to be incorporated in any history course that deals with human rights. The Disability Rights Movement began in the early 1970's, within the same general time frame as the Civil Rights and Women Movements. People with disabilities were closing down buildings, creating independent living centers, and protesting on college campuses; yet, unlike issues of women, African-Americans, and Hispanics, disability is only now emerging as an area of study.

Women with disabilities have a much lower rate of social and economic success than non-disabled women and than disabled men. Women with disabilities have traditionally been excluded from the examination of both women's issues and issues of persons with disabilities, as well as from their human rights efforts. The experience of women with disabilities needs to be incorporated in Women's Studies courses. Additionally, the cultural value of body image is a key factor impacting social role determination and self-esteem for all women. Women with disabilities fare particularly poorly within this construct; moreover, historically, women have been disabled by cultural-specific practices employed in an effort to create the ideal body.

Courses in literature need to include the images of characters with disabilities, as well make note of the exclusion of characters with disabilities. With few exception, disabled characters are marginal, minor characters, rarely a main character. They are stereotypical, metaphorical, uncomplicated, and incomplete; their purpose is to in some way shed light on the main character or to advance the plot. When a character with a disability is employed as a major character, he/she emerges within two main portrayals: that of the monster or demon or he/she who evokes pity and charity. Moreover, the writings of persons with disabilities in traditional genres, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, need to be incorporated into appropriate courses, as do contemporary disability/body writing: memoir, autobiography, and personal essay.

Courses that cover the history of film, theater, and art need to include individuals with disabilities. Movies, being more accessible to the vast majority than theater and the fine arts, tend to express and reflect mainstream cultural values. History of film courses need include the historical and evolving images of individuals with disabilities. Typically, disability has been translated into personal and social inferiority. The disabled character is not so much a character, but rather a metaphor in which disability represents a flaw in character. Martin Norden (1994), in The Cinema of Isolation, states that film has historically isolated disabled characters from the mainstream and from each other. They are to be pitied, scorned, or feared; they are childlike, magical, or demonic and usually self-loathing. Resolution for disabled characters is either cure, which allows them to be whole and absorbed into the mainstream, or death. Additionally, the use of actors with disabilities needs to be examined.

History of theatre courses need to include the historical and evolving use of disabled characters and disabled actors in much the same way as history of film courses. An additional area of examination in theater is the emerging and evolving genre of theater and "physically integrated" dance that focus on and celebrate disability. Courses in the history of the visual arts, fine art and photography, need to examine the representation of the disabled figure. In addition, a current movement comprised mainly of artists with disabilities is using visual arts as a means to incorporate the history and experience of disability into the mainstream to lend visibility and identity to the disabled community.


Disability Studies pertains mainly to content, and, thus, is most relevant in courses that examine the experience of discrete groups within the broader society, that survey history, and that explore the ways in which image is developed, portrayed, and perpetuated. The experience of individuals with disabilities, however, may and should be addressed inclusively and procedurally through an awareness of the shared experience of disability in terms of the designation of inferior status; an understanding of the differences that exist as they relate to culture, race, and gender; the creation of assignments that include disability issues as content; and the use of examples/reading selections that depict positive and realistic images of individuals with disabilities.

Knowledge and understanding are the seeds of change and the tools of empowerment. Thus far, educators have been sorely remiss in the wholesale exclusion of the history and shared experience of individuals with disabilities as an area of study. This omission is significant both academically, which diminishes the breadth and depth of education offered, and functionally, which perpetuates the inferior status of individuals with disabilities. Inherent in the mission of the community college is an imperative to educate and an opportunity to affect a diverse and comprehensive population of students. Our responsibility as educators who have accepted this mission and who value this opportunity is to commit as active participants to the inclusion of Disability Studies as both content and process within our classrooms.


  • Davis, L. J. (1997). The Disability Studies reader. New York: Routledge.
  • Funk, R. (1987). Disability rights: from caste to class in the context of civil rights. In A. Gartner & T. Joe (Eds.), Images of the disabled, disabling images. (pp. 7-30). New York: Praeger.
  • Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
  • Lorde, A. (1984) Age, race, class, and sex: women redefining difference. In A. Lorde, Sister outsider. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
  • Morris, J. (1991). Pride against prejudice: transforming attitudes to disability. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
  • Norden, M. E. ((1994). The cinema of isolation: a history of physical disability in the movies. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
  • Olkin, R.(1999). What psychotherapists should know about disability. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Ramirez, A. (1997, December 21). Disability as a field of study. The New York Times.
  • Thompson, R. G. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • United States Bureau of the Census. (1994-1995). Americans with disabilities.

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