What is Disability Studies?

Disability Studies views disability as a political construction and cultural identity, not simply as a medical condition. Disability is not only a set of physical or mental differences but the product of interactions between physical, cultural, and political environments shaping the perception and experience of different capacities.

Disability Studies is interdisciplinary both because it draws upon the intellectual tools of various disciplines and because it serves as a conceptual framework that reorients the basic assumptions of various fields of knowledge: the current shape of the field ‘crips’ knowledges in the contemporary academy, offering perspectives on who is deemed worthy to live, and who is not; who is a citizen, who is not; what makes up the ‘human,’ and the ‘institution.’ In a productive tension and collaboration with these analytics, disability studies also focuses on the lived experience of disability, and views disabled people not as objects but as producers of knowledge, as participants and creators of disability culture(s).

Several important social developments have brought the issue of disability to the forefront of our national consciousness:

  • The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 empowered persons with disabilities and changed how institutions conduct business
  • According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 54 million Americans have a disability (nearly 20% of the population), and this number is growing
  • The 2000 U.S. Census included a disability component for the first time, recognizing the significance of disability
  • An active disability rights movement in the United States and abroad continues to address access and participation as well as institutionalization
  • In 2001, the World Health Organization revised its description of disability to include participation and environment, defining disability as more than a medical condition
  • In 2002, the United Nations sponsored an “International Day of Disabled Persons” to raise awareness and promote participation

Disability Studies has emerged in tandem with these important events. Its purpose is to expand the concept of diversity in democratic society and to increase the awareness of how disability influences the life course of human beings, the organization of societies, and the shape of knowledge in the arts, sciences, and humanities.

Dozens of college and university campuses in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have established programs and departments in Disability Studies. Some programs lead to undergraduate or graduate degrees, some certification; some courses are offered by established academic departments ranging from Romance Languages to Rehabilitation Science, from Law to Literature, from Psychology to Engineering. The field as a whole is broadly interdisciplinary, and the University of Michigan is an ideal place for maximizing the interdisciplinary reach of Disability Studies.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M