What is Disability Studies?

Disability Studies refers generally to the examination of disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. In contrast to clinical, medical, or therapeutic perspectives on disability, Disability Studies focuses on how disability is defined and represented in society. It rejects the perception of disability as a functional impairment that limits a person’s activities. From this perspective, disability is not a characteristic that exists in the person or a problem of the person that must be “fixed” or “cured.” Instead, disability is a construct that finds its meaning within a social and cultural context.

Disability Studies is a vibrant and diverse area of academic inquiry. First, It is interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary. No single academic discipline can place a claim on Disability Studies. Rather, the field is informed by scholarship from such different disciplines as history, sociology, literature, political science, law, policy studies, economics, cultural studies, anthropology, geography, philosophy, theology, gender studies, communications and media studies, architecture, and the arts.

Second, Disability Studies includes a diverse group of people. People who are blind or deaf, or who use wheelchairs, have chronic pain, or learn at a slower pace than other people, and so on have vastly different experiences and perspectives. Yet they share in common society’s definition of them as disabled, with consequences for how they are viewed and treated by the majority which is presumed to be nondisabled.

Finally, defining what Disability Studies is may also be informed by what it is not. It is not medicine, rehabilitation, special education, physical or occupational therapy, and professions oriented toward the cure, prevention, or treatment of disabilities. Although Disability Studies scholars generally subscribe to the minority group model of disability — the view that the status of people as a minority shapes their experiences in society — they agree on little else. For example, some Disability Studies scholars view disability in terms of culture and identity, while others see disability as a label and a social construct. Some Disability Studies Scholars use different language to refer to the people at the center of inquiry in Disability Studies. Disabled person is used to draw attention to the centrality of disability in individual identity; person with a disability or “people first language” conveys the idea that having a disability is secondary to a person’s identity as a human being; person labeled as disabled (mentally retarded, mentally ill, and so on) focuses on how disability is a socially constructed definition imposed on people who may or may not agree to this characterization. A deaf person and Deaf person mean very different things, with the latter emphasizing membership in a culture defined linguistically.

In short, Disability Studies challenges the way in which disability is constructed in society. At Syracuse University’s Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies, it also involves the development of the theoretical, research, educational, and advocacy models necessary to remove the legal, physical, policy, and attitudinal barriers that exclude people with disabilities from society. Disability Studies, therefore, has the potential to benefit people with disabilities as well as society by the participation and presence of people with disabilities in our schools, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and in our lives.