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The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Disability Studies: Curating An Inclusive Perspective


On Oct. 13, disability studies took center stage in Red Square at Ramping Up for Access, an event hosted by the Disability Cultural Initiative

Amy Kenny, inaugural director of the initiative, remarks that this event allowed the Georgetown University community to learn about how to foster inclusive accessibility.   

“We know that creating a culture of access takes all of us, and the event encourages folks to participate in building a Lego ramp together, and practicing concrete ways we can all make our world a little more accessible,” Kenny wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I might even use the ramp once it’s built!”

Kenny joined the university Aug. 22 and has been tasked with establishing a campus Disability Cultural Center, which will coordinate programming for disabled members of the Georgetown community as well as those interested in learning more about disability studies.

“This is an exciting time for Georgetown to launch this initiative, and become a leader in building a fully-fledged Disability Cultural Center,” Kenny wrote. 

Another Ramping Up for Access will be held on Oct. 27, representing a wider campus push to integrate disability studies into academic and extracurricular spaces. 

The disability studies minor engages students and faculty members in self-reflection. Through a selection of multidisciplinary courses, the program prompts them to reconsider the way they view disability and accessibility in the world and in their own lives.

Changing Perspectives 

The disability studies minor program started in Fall 2017 following three years of advocacy from the Disability Studies Minor Working Group, an ad hoc faculty group established by professor Libbie Rifkin in 2013. 

Students were also involved in efforts to include disabilities studies in academic offerings. In 2016, the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) wrote a petition asking the university to create a disability studies program. 

Long notes that a goal of the minor is to reshape the models we use to view disabilities. 

“The traditional sort of model, the medical model, the deficit model, whatever you want to call it, often takes a very objective view of disability as a description,” Long said. “And that has impairments that have to be provided by some sort of intervention or a treatment so that the person does not have that impairment anymore.” 

This model stigmatizes and creates a preconceived notion of how individuals with disabilities function in society, according to Long.

“Disability studies takes a very different kind of approach in which, yes, we really feel that people do have impairments that perhaps interfere with their quality of life, that perhaps with certain interventions can be improved upon,” Long said. “But the disability itself is not the reason for their poor quality of life.”

According to Long, determinants of a poor quality of life stem from physical access policies and society’s awareness of disabilities. The structure of society makes life more difficult for a person with a disability, not the disability itself. 

Beyond engaging in disability studies through class enrollment, the program also puts together a list of events that bring disability activists, performers, artists and fashion designers to Georgetown each semester. 

One standout event was when Alice Sheppard, a wheelchair and crutch-using dancer and choreographer, performed in the Davis Center in 2016. 

Sheppard’s dance deconstructed ableist stereotypes and presumptions that a physically disabled person’s performance could not be as beautiful and rousing as someone without a disability, according to professor Sylvia Önder.  

“Her performance was just gorgeous and incredibly athletic and very pointed,” Önder said. “She was probing the audience’s preconceptions.”

Fostering Personal Growth

Faculty members and Georgetown University graduates associated with the Disability Studies Working Group at Georgetown spoke to The Hoya about the changing attitudes toward disabilities at the university over recent decades. 

Toby Long, a professor of pediatrics in the Georgetown University School of Medicine and a founding faculty member of the Disability Studies Working Group, said that disability is more accepted and apparent on campus today compared to when she first arrived on campus in 1980. 

“I think the biggest change is just the plain recognition on campus that people do have disabilities and students at Georgetown have disabilities,” Long said. “I cannot imagine 40 years ago that there were many students, if they did have a disability, who would ever admit it.”

When Önder, a member of the Disability Studies Working Group, arrived at Georgetown in 1998, there were usually only one or two very visible members of the community who identified as disabled. 

“We didn’t see that very often,” Önder said in an interview with The Hoya. “People would either be hiding any diagnosis that they had, or they wouldn’t come to college.”

Önder said she believes attitudes toward disabled people and the study of disability in academia have become more affirming in the Georgetown community.

Madeleine Gibbons-Shapiro (COL ’21), a recent graduate and disability studies minor, said she had never heard of disability studies before enrolling at Georgetown. She became interested in the field after enrolling in Rifkin’s Ignatius Seminar on “Disability, Culture and Question of Care” during her first year.  

“It challenged my thinking and my worldview in a way that my other classes hadn’t been doing at the time,” Gibbons-Shapiro said in an interview with The Hoya. “I also really liked how interdisciplinary it was. We would be reading a novel one week, and then we’re reading theory the next week, and we’re watching a movie, and looking at it from all different angles.”

Given that disability studies is a program rather than a department, all the electives for the minor fall into different departments, making it an inherently interdisciplinary minor. 

The minor requires students to take five classes: three disability studies core classes and two electives that engage with disability studies in some way. The core classes offered include Disability and Culture, Feminist Disability Studies and Genomics, and Disability and Health. 

Nicholaus Hodge (COL ’23), who is minoring in disability studies and currently enrolled in Önder’s “Disability & Culture” class, said the classes resonated with him. 

“I don’t think I have taken many classes in other departments that seem as salient to today’s world as the classes I have taken for the disability studies minor,” Nicholaus said in an interview with The Hoya.

Gibbons-Shapiro said that her time as a disability studies minor taught her the value of approaching interpersonal relationships with empathy. 

“You really never know exactly what another person’s health or disability or mental state is unless they choose to disclose that with you,” Gibbons-Shapiro said. “We can all benefit from having that kind of gentleness and empathy, that we would hope to extend to ourselves, to other people as well.”

According to Gibbons-Shapiro, minoring in disability studies allowed her to treat herself with kindness during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think that taking a step back from that and remembering that I’m okay, that it’s okay for me to have bad days and good days in this fluctuating world, that I can advocate for myself and my needs, even when the structure of like a job might not be immediately accommodating to those needs and things of that sort, I think, have been influenced by the disability studies minor,” Gibbons-Shapiro said. 

Esther Kang (COL ’23), said that her time as a disability studies minor taught her not to put too much pressure on herself. 

“I think a big one really is that you are sufficient as you are today and tomorrow,” Kang said in an interview with The Hoya. “I feel like that gets lost really easily in hustle culture where it’s all about reaching a certain destination or self-improvement.” 

History of the Disability Studies Minor 

Rifkin, a professor in the English department and one of the founders of the disability studies program, said she became interested in disability studies when her son, who is now 19, was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is an intellectual disability caused by abnormal brain development, or damage to the developing brain, that affects the ability to move, balance and maintain posture.  

Rifkin’s personal relationship with disability through her son prompted her to become involved in teaching about disability studies topics.

“I got very interested in our experience as a family and his experience in the question of what kinds of communities there were out there for us,” Rifkin said in an interview with The Hoya. “I pretty much introduced myself to a new field starting in about 2008 by teaching it.”

Rifkin designed a first-year writing class that emphasizes disability studies called “Discourses of Disability.” The course featured poetry in American Sign Language, texts by disabled writers, and an analysis of the foundations of the disability rights movement. In 2014, she helped design an English elective course called “Introduction to Disability Studies.” 

Rifkin now serves as a special adviser for disability to the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion and the associate director for Georgetown’s program in Disability Studies. 

Rifkin discovered that fellow colleagues across academic departments were also working to include disability studies topics in course curricula. 

“I began to meet colleagues at Georgetown in Nursing and Health Sciences, interestingly, in theater and performance studies, in theology and religious studies and in anthropology, who were also centering courses that they were teaching around disability experience,” Rifkin said. 

Upon discovering that other faculty at Georgetown had a vested interest in disability studies, Rifkin realized her next step was to develop a structured curriculum for disability studies. 

Rifkin said she worked with faculty and the Red House, a Georgetown organization that helps to develop and fund interdisciplinary courses on campus, in 2014 to develop a disability studies course cluster.

The cluster was composed of three courses: “Introduction to Disability Studies,” “Disability and Culture” and “Disability and Religion,” which also included various events and speakers to augment course material, according to Rifkin. 

After its approval in 2017 by the executive committee of the College, the Disability Studies minor and its faculty now engage students in critical analysis of social power in the social sciences, health sciences and in the humanities.

The Future of Disability Studies at Georgetown 

Following the successful implementation of and students’ vast interest in the disability studies minor, professors are investigating the possibility of creating a disability studies major. 

Additionally, Kenny’s recent appointment has been received with excitement on campus, according to Long. 

“She’s only been on campus a month and she is really engaged with so many different student groups, so many different departments and has just really extended herself out to the whole Georgetown community,” Long said. “I think that she will make a really big difference and an impression on the whole community over the next year. I’m anticipating seeing great things from her and the Disability Cultural Center.” 

While her time on campus has been rewarding thus far, Kenny also understands that Georgetown has a long way to go in terms of physical accessibility.

“Personally I’ve found that navigating a built environment can be tricky using a mobility scooter, but it is also a challenge when people assume disabled people are not capable of contributing to the communities we are in,” wrote Dr. Kenny. “Disalbed folks have wisdom to share with the community, and I hope to invite people to share in that wisdom. Everyone can play a role in making our campus community more inclusive for disabled students, faculty, and staff.” 

The disability studies program has also just introduced the 2023 Disability Studies Learning and Practice Fellowship. The theme this year is mental health and disability justice. The fellowship gives students the opportunity to do research regarding different ways to benefit and support the disabiled community. 

Kenny remarks that positive feedback from the community so far continues to inspire her transformative work. 

“My favorite part of this work has been learning about all of the wonderful work that folks are already doing on campus around disability culture and pride,” Kenny wrote. “Students are engaged and passionate about supporting disbaled community members, and there is a vibrant community from every corner of campus who are invested in this work.”

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