A new undergraduate degree in disability studies at The University of Toledo is the first of its kind in the country rooted in the humanities and social sciences and offered on campus.“Disability has long been studied as a biomedical issue, but disability studies is dramatically different,” said Dr. Jim Ferris, the Ability Center of Greater Toledo Endowed Chair in Disability Studies. “Rather than focusing on the characteristics of bodies and functional limitations or impairments, disability studies focuses on disability as a social construct.”
Disability studies is a growing field with minors, certificate programs and graduate degrees being offered at more colleges across the country, but the new bachelor of arts degree at UT is the first such undergraduate program in the social sciences that is not exclusively online, said Ferris, who is professor of disability studies and director of the Disability Studies Program.
The Disability Studies Program at the University is an interdisciplinary program with the goal of fostering understanding of the contributions, experiences, history and culture of people with disabilities. The program was created in 2001 with the Ability Center of Greater Toledo and at the time was the first of its kind in the state.
“Disability studies is the scholarly understanding of disability as a sociocultural phenomenon rather than simply as a medically defined condition,” Ferris said.
UT has previously offered the discipline as a minor, which is being expanded into the bachelor’s degree program for students interested in careers in social service, public education, advocacy, government policy, health-care administration, human resource management or other fields.
People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States with more than 56 million people or 19 percent of the population, according to 2010 Census Bureau data; that number is expected to grow as the population ages, Ferris said.
“Everyone becomes disabled if they live long enough. It’s part of the aging process,” Ferris said.
The disability rights movement started in the 1970s and advanced with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was signed into law 25 years ago by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The growing scholarly field of disability studies works to advance the conversation further beyond discrimination and accessibility, Ferris said.
“At its heart, disability studies is about what it means to be human: who gets to participate in society and to what extent,” Ferris said. “It’s about recognizing and respecting diversity. It’s about how to think about and talk about the ways of being different in the world.”
The Ohio Board of Regents approved the bachelor’s degree program in December, and the University is recruiting its first class of students to begin their studies in the fall.
The degree program includes study of disability culture and history, disability law and human rights, deaf studies, gender and disability, and autism and culture, as well as a mandatory internship.
For additional information on the Disability Studies Program, visit utoledo.edu/llss/disability.