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Disability Studies at Syracuse University
Cultural Foundations of Education
School of Education
Syracuse University
805 South Crouse Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2280
Phone 315-443-3851
Fax 315-443-4338  
Alan Foley, Coordinator -

The Syracuse Tradition

Disability Studies applies social, cultural, historical, and philosophical perspectives to the study of disability in society. Building on the tradition of Syracuse University's School of Education in the area of disability, the program is designed to help students understand and work to overcome the barriers to full participation of people with disabilities in the community and society. Consistent with the Syracuse tradition, this program stands at the forefront of change and new ways of thinking about and accommodating people with disabilities.

Since the early 1970s, Syracuse University programs and centers have been involved in a broad range of research, training, and advocacy efforts in the area of disability. Faculty and students associated with the Special Education program have examined media portrayals and cultural stereotypes of people with disabilities, institutional abuse, the social construction of mental retardation, the history of mental retardation, public policy and developmental disabilities, school inclusion, and the experiences of people with disabilities and their families in the community. Much of the research at Syracuse has been based on qualitative or ethnographic research methods, and faculty have helped to popularize this research approach in education and human services.

Founded by the late Burton Blatt, the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse emerged in the 1970s as one of the nation's leading policy institutes on disability. In addition to research and training, the Center has played a leadership role in the movement to insure people with disabilities with their rightful place in the community. The Center advocated for deinstitutionalization, accessibility, school inclusion, parents' rights, and self-advocacy long before these became popular trends in the field of disability.

In 1994, teacher training programs in Special Education merged with the School of Education's Teaching & Leadership Program to promote the preparation of teachers competent to educate students in inclusive schools. Faculty associated with the sociology of disability and public policy became part of the Cultural Foundations of Education program. As part of this reorganization, the Disability Studies was established in Cultural Foundations for graduate level students.

The Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies expands on the Center on Human Policy. The new Center was one of the first university-based multidisciplinary center of its kind, coalescing disability-related teaching, research, academic programs, and national and international training and advocacy projects by Syracuse University faculty and students. As such, the Center sets the stage for major new initiatives in multidisciplinary research, law, public policy, and advocacy to promote the inclusion and equality of children and adults with disabilities in societies throughout the world.

A Disability Studies Perspective

Disability Studies focuses on disability as a social phenomenon, social construct, metaphor, and identity. Stimulated by the disability rights movement, there has been a tremendous increase in interest in Disability Studies over the past decade or so. The past several decades have witnessed the formation of a major association devoted to Disability Studies, the Society for Disability Studies, the publication of Disability Studies journals, including the Disability Studies Quarterly, Disability & Society, and the Journal of Disability Policy Studies, and the development of Disability Studies programs and courses at numerous universities. In addition, social, cultural, and historical perspectives on disability have received increased attention in traditional disability associations and journals in recent years.

Disability Studies at Syracuse examines disability as a social phenomenon and is based on the philosophy and principles underlying Disability Studies generally: 

  • Disability Studies uses the perspectives and experiences of people with disabilities as the foundation for all research and training. Studies at Syracuse attempt to give a voice to people with disabilities, including those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. If people are not easily able to communicate their perspectives, this is treated as a problem to be solved, and not grounds for dismissing their points of view.
  • Disability Studies adopts a cross-disability perspective. Disability Studies seeks to examine the commonalties in the experiences of the diverse group of people who have been defined as disabled.
  • Disability Studies views disability as a social construct and people with disabilities as a minority group. This program focuses on social and cultural aspects of disability.
  • Disability Studies is interdisciplinary. Studies in this area draw on a variety of disciplines in order to understand the social, cultural, and political situation of people with disabilities.
  • Disability Studies recognizes the important role that family members play in the lives of many people with disabilities. Scholarship in this area includes inquires into the views and experiences of family members of people with developmental disabilities in particular. Of course, the voices of family members cannot be regarded as a substitute for the voices of people with intellectual disabilities themselves.
  • Disability Studies at Syracuse is designed to provide students with the skills, methods, and perspectives to play a variety of leadership roles in disability research, policy, and advocacy. Studies in this area are not designed to provide professional certification in direct services or clinical areas.

The program adopts a cross-disability perspective. Current students have interests in people with a broad range of disabilities. The Cultural Foundations of Education (CFE) program offers a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) in Disability Studies. Students enrolled in the Master's and Ph.D. programs in CFE and other graduate programs can concentrate in Disability Studies as part of their graduate program. The CAS in Disability Studies provides formal recognition of advanced graduate study in this area. Students who are not enrolled in any Master's or doctoral program at Syracuse University can also pursue the CAS.  Starting in Fall 2010, CFE offers an undergraduate Minor in Disability Studies. 

Graduate Certificate of Advanced Study in Disability Studies 

In 2000, a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) in Disability Studies at Syracuse University was approved by the New York State Education Department. Although this CAS program is coordinated by Cultural Foundations of Education, graduate students from any department or school at Syracuse University can apply for admission to the CAS program and receive formal recognition of advanced graduate work in Disability Studies. The CAS requires 15 credit hours of course work in Disability Studies and related areas, in addition to a graduate examination. The CAS program is ideally suited for students who want to demonstrate that they can teach, conduct research, or work in the area of disability studies as well as other fields (e.g., Special Education, Rehabilitation Counseling, the Social Sciences).

The CAS in Disability Studies is available to persons who are not enrolled in degree programs at Syracuse University. The CAS is designed to provide career enhancement opportunities to non-degree program students. 

Program of Study

Each student admitted into the CAS program in Disability Studies will develop a written program of study, in consultation with an academic advisor from Cultural Foundations of Education. The program of study must be completed within five semesters, or six semesters under exceptional circumstances. All credits for the CAS must be earned at Syracuse University.

The program of study must include: 

  • Twelve credit hours in disability-related courses. 
  • Three additional credit hours in disability related courses or other courses or experiences (e.g., internship or independent study) that provide skills and knowledge that can be applied to the study of disability. 
  • A written or oral examination.

Upon completion of the program, students receive the CAS at Syracuse University's graduation.

The purpose of the CAS is not to provide you with professional certification. Other programs at Syracuse offer professional certification in disability-related fields. The purpose of this program is to give you the intellectual and methodological tools to enable you to play a leadership role in disability research, policy, and practice at a broad range of public and private organizations.

Although the CAS is not designed to prepare students to perform clinical roles in education, rehabilitation, and related fields, students may choose to acquire general knowledge of one or more areas of clinical or instructional practice. The School of Education offers courses and programs in inclusive and special education and rehabilitation.

Areas of Study

As a graduate student pursuing the CAS, you will have program of study that matches your own interests with current activities of faculty and associates. Through course work, independent studies, thesis or dissertation research, or internships at the School of Education's disability centers and institutes, you will examine a range of issues confronting people with disabilities, including cultural representations of disability, deinstitutionalization and community integration, assistive technology and accessible web design, current trends and controversies, advocacy and self-advocacy, the sociology of disability, race and disability, community and family support services, media images of disability, gender and disability, and disability law and policy. In addition, you will be exposed to social, historical, and philosophical perspectives as well as strategies for policy analysis, program evaluation, and community education. Depending on your interests and program of study, you will be encouraged to take courses both in the School of Education and other schools at Syracuse University, including the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, the College of Law, and the School of Social Work.

Recent courses in Disability Studies taught at Syracuse University include:

DSP/CFE688 Social Policy and Disability - This course has five purposes: (1) to help understand how social policy affects human services and the lives of people with disabilities; (2) to give an appreciation of the complexity of social change and social policy; (3) to provide an understanding of the social, economic, historical, political, cultural, and legal forces that shape policy and practices in the field of disabilities; (4) to expose current issues, controversies, and trends in the field of disabilities; and (5) to teach how to read and interpret historical documents, court cases, media reports, and other materials.  | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE/SOC600 The Sociology of Disability - In this course, we assume a sociological eye and imagination to critically deconstruct traditional interpretations of the meaning of disability. Rather than accepting disability as an individual’s “problem” located within his or her body, mind, or soul, we will focus on the cultural construction of ideas such as mental retardation, autism, behavior disorders, and the myriad of other categories that often serve to cloak the humanness of millions of people worldwide. | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE/SPE/RED600 Literacy, Disability and Inclusion  In this course we will critically examine traditional conceptualizations of disability, literacy, and segregation and explore alternative understandings that support the symbolic and literate development of children and adults with moderate to severe disabilities. This course will proceed on several dimensions, two of which include: 1) A cultural examination of how people with disabilities have been both separated from, and facilitated toward, literacy, and 2) How definitions of literacy impact on who is, and who is not, considered to be a citizen of the literate community.  | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE/WSP/SPE700 Gender, Disability & Sexuality: Seminar in Feminist Disability Studies  Scholars in Disability Studies define dis/ability, not as a physical deficit or defect inherent in certain bodies or brains, but rather as a relationship of differential power/privilege. Drawing on critical theory, dis/ability is understood as a discursive construction--a fictional ‘other’ to an equally constructed ‘norm.’ In other words, dis/ability from this lens is “a way of thinking about bodies rather than …something that is wrong with bodies” (from NEH Summer Institute on Disability Studies). Feminist disability studies begins with the assumption that disability is always inextricably linked to other social markers, such as gender, race, sexuality, and social class. Issues explored within feminist disability studies are wide-ranging and span diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary locations. Some of the topics addressed include the phenomenology of the lived body, issues of representation and subjectivity, and the politics of appearance and care. Readings for this graduate seminar will draw from a range of critical writings across disciplines and genres in this emerging field of inquiry. | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE/WSP662 Youth, Schooling, and Popular Culture - Schools and media vie for youth’s allegiance. This course, positioned where school, media and youth cultures intersect, examines how schools and media represent “good” and “bad” youth, and how youth negotiate school and popular cultures. In this course you will: explores different theories of popular culture; considers the historically shifting meaning of youth since World War II in the contexts of film, TV, advertising, technology, and schooling; investigate how schools, popular culture and youth get represented in film, ethnography, autobiography, photography, song lyrics, fiction, and educational policy documents; critique the oppositional stance of school and popular culture; examine relationships between culture(s) and authority. | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE614 Critical Issues in Dis/ability & Inclusion - An overview of critical approaches to dis/ability and inclusion. Analysis of shifting social and cultural constructions of dis/ability through an interdisciplinary exploration of autobiography, narrative, film, legal and policy issue and research literature. | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE700 Dis/Ability, Race and Class: Special Topics in Disability Studies - Scholars in Disability Studies define dis/ability, not as a physical deficit or defect inherent in certain bodies or brains, but rather as a relationship of differential power/privilege. Drawing on critical theory, dis/ability is understood as a discursive construction--a fictional “other” to an equally constructed norm. Similarly, critical race scholars understand race to be socially constructed, rather than biologically determined. Although race and dis/ability do not have biological meaning, they do have social meaning and material consequences. In this course we will look at the intersections among constructions of race and ability in various cultural and historical contexts. | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE723 Representation of Ability/Disability – Ability and disability are cornerstone concepts in education. This course provides an opportunity to examine how ability and disability are presented in popular culture, literature as well as film, autobiographies of people with and without disabilities, and in professional texts/narratives (e.g., research literature, practitioner materials) and the meaning of this representations for educational practice and social policy. In addition to considering different constructions and meanings of ability and disability, participants will examine markers of privilege as well as processes of marginalization. The focus of this course is on developing skills to examine how ideas (including ideas about the body and mind) are constructed and represented in cultural contexts and the meaning for this for work in education-related fields. | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE930 Seminar on Disability Studies - This is a graduate seminar on Disability Studies. Through readings and discussions, participants examine disability as a social and cultural construct and political and legal issue. The seminar is organized as a discussion group, and participants are expected to assume responsibility for organizing discussions. Readings in the seminar include both “classics” and recently published works. | Sample Syllabus

DSP/EDP625 Psychological and Social Aspects of Disability - This course will address psychological and sociological perspectives on adjustment to disability. Psychological topics will include models of adjustment to disability, stress and coping with life transitions, disability issues across the life span, and value changes associated with adjustment for individuals with a wide range of disabilities. Sociological perspectives will focus on the social construction of disability, cross-cultural issues in adjustment, the role of family, the genesis and consequences of negative attitudes toward people with disabilities, and the role of the helping professional in promoting adjustment and systems change.  | Sample Syllabus |

DSP/CFE700 Disability in Higher Education—The purpose of this course is to consider how disability is constructed in higher education at the individual, institutional, state, and national levels. Disability Studies models and theories, including ableism and universal design, serve as primary frameworks for inquiry.  The course is interdisciplinary and assumes no prior knowledge of disability, Disability Studies, or higher education.  | Sample Syllabus |

LAW763 Disability Law—This class deals with federal laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, with particular emphasis on the American Disabilities Act of 1990. The goal of this course is to provide a legal, conceptual, and practical understanding of people with disabilities, forms of discrimination that occur on the basis of disability, and the protections against such discrimination that currently exist.

LAW809 Advanced Disability Law & Policy—This is an applied research course. Students select a topic of interest to them and prepare a class presentation and paper on the topic. The topic may pertain to domestic, international, or comparative disability law and policy. The course is open to all students, including those whom have not taken Disability Law. However, some background in disability studies or a related field (e.g. education, social policy) is suggested. This course is open to law students and graduate students, with permission of the instructor. This course meets the COL writing requirement. 

LAW896 Education Law Seminar—This seminar will introduce students to legal and policy issues that arise in the provision of public and private elementary, secondary, and higher education. The seminar seeks to provide students with an understanding of the role of education in society, and the role of law in the provision of education. The course will cover such topics as gender equality, affirmative action and diversity, special education and inclusion, public school desegregation, federal and state roles in public education, the use of public funds for private/parochial education, public school choice and school vouchers, the right and responsibilities of students, and the rights and responsibilities of teachers and administrators. Guest speakers from the field of education will join the class and some students will have the opportunity to work on administrative hearings for clients as part of a class assignment. This course is open to law students and graduate students, with permission of the instructor. This course meets the COL writing requirement.

LAW923 Disability Rights Advocacy Law Clinic—The Disability Rights Advocacy Law Clinic is dedicated to providing representation to individuals and groups in our community who are unable to secure representation elsewhere. One reason DRC clients are unable to find other lawyers to represent them, is because of their lack of financial resources. In our community, as elsewhere, the vast majority of lawyers provide legal assistance only to those who can afford to pay for their services. Furthermore, in recent years federal funding, the major source of funding for legal services for people with low or no income, has been reduced dramatically. A second reason DRC clients are unable to find lawyers elsewhere relates to the types of cases they may have which may involve controversial issues or conflicts of interest for other lawyers. DRC student attorneys practice in federal and state courts, and before administrative agencies in a broad range of civil rights matters, including race, gender, age and disability discrimination, sexual harassment, prisoners rights, immigration, accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and employment matters.

Degrees Offered and Requirements

Cultural Foundations of Education offers the following degrees. Other Syracuse University graduate programs offer comparable degrees.

Master of Science (M.S.Ed.) 

  • A minimum of 24 credits beyond the bachelor's degree and a thesis (3 or 6 credits) or a minimum of 30 credits beyond the bachelor's degree and a comprehensive examination. 
  • A minimum of 3 credits of qualitative or quantitative research methodology.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) 

  • A minimum of 90 credits beyond the bachelor's degree; one half of the credits, excluding dissertation hours, may be transferred from another university with the advisor's approval.
  •  A minimum of 12 credits of research methodology.
  • A research apprenticeship (journal quality scholarly article) completed under the supervision of a faculty member. 
  • Qualifying examinations. 
  • Dissertation (typically, doctoral students register for 12 to 24 dissertation credit hours during the course of their studies).

Joint Degree 

In Spring 2003, Syracuse University introduced the nation’s first joint degree in law and Disability Studies. The J.D./M.S.Ed. with a CAS in Disability Studies from the Cultural Foundations of Education program at the School of Education is a unique program that offers students the opportunity to obtain both a law degree and a Master's in education in just three years. Students apply for the joint degree program during their second semester in the College of Law.

Future Roles

Both Master's and doctoral students are prepared to play leadership roles in the field of disability. For master's students, future careers include administrative and policy positions in community service agencies, advocacy organizations, independent living centers, parent centers, planning councils, and government agencies. Doctoral students are prepared for a variety of academic, research, and policy positions. Although all students receive training in Disability Studies, each student's program of study is different, depending on individual backgrounds and interests. In addition to Disability Studies, those interested in the public administration and policy are directed to courses and faculty Syracuse University's Maxwell School, and those interested in gender are encouraged to pursue studies in Syracuse's Women and Gender Studies program and the Gender and Education concentration within Cultural Foundations of Education. Students are prepared to conduct research and teach courses in both Disability Studies and at least one additional academic discipline. Since Disability Studies is a relatively new area of academic inquiry, with a small, but growing number of university programs, graduates should not expect to obtain full-time positions in Disability Studies.

Some of the major academic and non-academic careers for which doctoral students are prepared include: 

  • Senior positions in university affiliated programs, research and training centers, private research and policy institutes
  • Leadership positions in federal and state disability agencies 
  • Academic positions in social welfare and human services 
  • Academic positions in cultural foundations, social sciences, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, public policy, and research and evaluation methods

At the Master’s level, students are not trained to fill specific positions, but rather receive training in skills, methods, and perspectives to perform a variety of non-clinical positions at community service agencies, advocacy organizations, planning councils, and government agencies. 

Examples of future careers of Master’s program graduates include: 

  • Protection and advocacy agencies
  • Parent training and information centers 
  • State mental retardation/developmental disabilities agencies 
  • Self-advocacy associations 
  • Community and family support agencies 
  • University or college offices for students with disabilities 
  • Independent living centers 
  • Senior research and training positions at university affiliated programs, research and training centers, private research and policy institutes

Graduate Awards and Appointments

Syracuse University and the School of Education grant merit-based graduate awards and appointments to their most outstanding students. These include: the University Graduate Fellowship, the University African-American Fellowship, School of Education scholarships, and graduate assistantships at academic programs or centers. Syracuse University's Office of Financial Aid can also assist students in obtaining other sources of financial aid and loans.

Application Procedures for the CAS

Graduate students admitted to a Master's or Ph.D. program at Syracuse University can apply to the CAS program by filing a Graduate School Internal Admission Application to Cultural Foundations of Education. This application must be approved by the student's current academic advisor.

Persons who are not enrolled in a Syracuse University graduate program can apply to the CAS in Disability Studies by completing the Application for Graduate Study at Syracuse University (this can be found at To be admitted, applicants must provide the following:

  • Evidence that a Bachelor's or Master's degree has been received.
  • Two letters of recommendation.

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is not required for the CAS.

On the application form, the Program of Study/Degree/Certificate sought should be "CAS in Disability Studies." Students can register at the School of Education's Extended Campus. 

How to Apply to Graduate Programs

All candidates that plan to apply for admission to a graduate program in the School of Education will need to use the online graduate application available via this web site:

There is an application fee. 
If you have questions about the graduate admissions process at the Syracuse University School of Education, please contact our Graduate Admissions Recruiter by email at  If you have questions about applying to Cultural Foundations of Educations programs, please contact Maryann Baker at

Undergraduate Minor in Disability Studies

The minor is an 18 credit requirement, with 12 credits in Disability Studies courses and 6 credits in electives. At least 12 credits must be taken in 300 level or above courses. Courses must be approved by the student’s advisor in Disability Studies. Courses in the minor may be able to be used to fulfill requirements in students’ home schools and colleges, at their discretion. A 2.8 grade point average is required for admission to the minor in Disability Studies. Although the minor is offered through the School of Education, it is open to any undergraduate students at Syracuse University.

Sample undergraduate courses in Disability Studies include:

  • DSP 200: Introduction to Disability Studies
  • DSP/SOC/WSP 432: Gender and Disability
  • DSP/SOC/WSP 438: Disability & Popular Culture
  • DSP/SOC 426 Representations of Ability & Disability
  • DSP/SOC 440 Sociology of Disability;
  • DSP/SPE 357 Deafness and Disability; and
  • DSP 475 Internship in Disability Policy

For information on the minor in Disability Studies. contact Alan Foley, Coordinator of Disability Studies (

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

The School of Education is committed to the inclusion of students with disabilities and is committed to provide accommodations to students with disabilities. In a diverse, democratic society, all members on campus benefit from knowing and learning from people who are different than themselves. The presence of people with disabilities on campus also leads to the integration of disability into teaching and research.

Services for students with disabilities are provided through Syracuse University’s Office of Disability Services (ODS). Students need to initiate the process of accessing support services as early as possible, preferably prior to the beginning of their first academic term.

For more information:
Office of Disability Services
804 University Avenue
Room 309
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244
315/443-4498 (Voice)
315/443-1371 (TDD)

Quick Links for Potential Students 

Resources on Disability Studies at Syracuse University

This is a listing of resources available on Disability Studies at Syracuse University, including publications as well as SU organizations, programs & centers.

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