Adding Disability To Your Syllabus

In the past year, I’ve been finding ways to infuse Disability Studies into the education courses I teach. Since a few friends and colleagues have asked me for advice on how to infuse a week or two of disability-related content into their syllabi, I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt so far for any other educators out there looking to do the same.

The three biggest things I’ve learnt:

  • Students really have no clue how bad discrimination is toward people with disabilities (e.g. forced sterilization, subminimum wage, immigration restrictions, removal of children, lack of sex ed, higher rates of violence and abuse and sexual violence)
  • It is new and alien for them to think about disability pride
  • They are not used to hearing disability voices at all

As such I recommend any introduction to disability studies start with addressing these, especially from an intersectional lens. Pretty much of the ways in which ableism is accepted and reinforced in society disproportionately affect multiply-marginalized disabled people (e.g. black disabled people, trans disabled people) and that needs to be reinforced.

Recommendations for Readings

I’d start by thinking about how you can take existing topics in your syllabus and relate them to disability justice. For example, let’s say you’ve been teaching about critical race studies. You could then talk about the intersections of race and disability, such as how special education as we know it was created to ensure racial segregation after Brown v Board. Or, let’s say you’re teaching a course about the sociology of science; you could get into issues of eugenics or the relationships between disability and technology.

Since students tend not to have any background in disability studies, here are a minimal set of readings I’d suggest to start with. Only one is an academic reading; and other than it and a 45min podcast, they are all quite short. All of these should be accessible to an undergraduate audience.

If you only have one week:

  1. Stella Young: I’m not your inspiration (~10 min video, has captions)
    • Introduces social model of disability, inspiration porn, critique of how education system deals with disability, disability community
    • I generally hate TED talks but this one has proven effective! Heard students returning to it a bunch during small group activities.
  2. Center for Disability Rights’ Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines (~15 min read)
    • Resource on language to use about disability; good/bad disability organizations
    • Introduces ableism, disability community, intersectionality
    • If you’re assigning the Stella Young video, I’d order things so this comes after so it reinforces her speech. You can make this one optional but I recommend having it posted so it’s a resource available about what language is appropriate.
  3. Harriet Tubman Collective’s open letter: The Vision for Black Lives is Incomplete Without Disability Solidarity (~10 min read)
    • Note: “audism” is discrimination toward the Deaf community
    • Introduction to the issues at the intersection of race and disability
    • Overview of some of the ways that disabled people today continue to be oppressed
    • I have students who are already supporters of BLM. Might think about a different reading introducing race+disability intersections if you’re worried about students being anti-BLM.
  4. Rose Eveleth in Wired: It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel (~10 min read)
    • Introduces some of the ways in which disability is advantageous

If you have a second class, or assign more than an hour of reading each class, add:

  1. 99% Invisible podcast episode “Curb Cuts” (~45 mins, has transcript)
    • Introduction to the history of disability rights movement in the US; Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads
    • Introduction to curb cuts, universal design
  2. Chapter 2, “The Social Construction of Disability”; from Wendell, Susan. The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. Routledge, 2013. (~40 min read)
    • Introduces how disability is socially constructed
    • Discusses intersections of disability and sex/gender
  3. Olga Khazan in The Atlantic: When Hearing Voices is a Good Thing (~5 min read)
    • Describes how schizophrenia symptoms vary culturally - helps reinforce how disability is socially constructed
    • Also presents people who are happy to have schizophrenia and don’t see it as a bad thing - helps reinforce disability pride

If you’re worried about there being too much in the second week, I would switch either the 99pi episode to week 1 and then move the CDR writing guidelines to week 2. And then from there add readings relevant to things you’ve already talked about in your course!

Selecting Relevant Readings To Your Course

If you don’t already have some relevant readings in mind, or don’t feel confident about the ones you’re thinking of, I would do a google scholar search for "ableism" + (relevant topical keywords).

I would steer away from searching for "disability" + your relevant topical keywords because of how much ableist content there is out there. Talking about ableism is a decent shibboleth to gauge DS background.

You may also want to have a skim through the table of contents for Lennard & Davis’ Disability Studies Reader (pdf). There’s a ton of classic articles in there and the TOC usefully gives short descriptions of each. You’re also welcome to peruse my annotated Disability Studies syllabus here!

Class Activity

In class I have a set of slides in which I discuss current disability rights/justice issues, different models of disability, and disability pride. When I presented these slides in winter 2019, it took me 37 minutes to go through them; I gave a more streamlined version in fall 2018 that took 20 mins.

I then do a class activity wherein for multiple disabilities I ask students in group questions like “How does society marginalize people with this disability?” and “Why would somebody with this disability feel proud to have it?”. The worksheet is here and takes about an hour (~10 mins a question). If you want to shorten it, I would assign 2-3 disabilities out of the five there, but vary which groups get which disabilities. You can get it down to 20-30 mins this way.

Before the worksheet I work through two worked examples: deafness and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Students struggle the most with why somebody would be proud, so be prepared for that! After the students have worked through the sheet I have groups share their responses to that question because I know that’s what they tended to struggle with.

My Experiences With This

  • Each time I’ve taught this (slides+activity), I’ve opened with asking people to list some disabilities and categories of disabilities
    • “Mental” vs “physical” always seems to be the first thing, and I have to do some work showing how that dichotomy breaks down
    • Students typically expect there’s a definition of disability, or expect there to be agreement on what it is. So they ask questions like “is X a disability?” and I have to explain that it depends on who you ask.
      • If you’re pressed for time and don’t want to really dive into social constructionism, you might start with the WHO definition and discuss some of its limitations — but at the same time I think it’s important to make clear there is no agreed upon definition
      • Students often stuck on how chronic illness is disabling, and how the dichotomy between illness and disability is also a broken one
  • The first time I taught a lesson disability studies I didn’t spend any time justifying why disability matters as a lens. Second time I put in a little slide listing some of the legal forms of discrimination against PWD and the students were shocked. Third time I did even more.
  • I’ve learnt to do EDS as a worked example because students don’t know what it is. An earlier version of the worksheet had more disabilities available (I had a bunch of strips of paper and randomized which groups got what) but we were slowed down since many of the disabilities students had never even heard of before.
  • Working through some examples of what the social model entails and having students work through some more appears to be effective for getting their heads around the social model.
    • Students often get stuck on the difference between social model and social construction.
  • I’ve gotten consistently positive feedback for including disability studies in my teaching — students appreciate learning about it!