When I arrived on Georgetown University’s campus as a freshman in 2016, the disability studies minor did not exist, and the primary way I thought about my own ability was as “not disabled.”
The disability studies minor was created in 2017 after three years of advocacy as a cluster of three classes and several on-campus events. While the growth of the program from nonexistence to a cluster to an 18-credit minor has been incredibly important, I want to emphasize the importance of not just increasing the program’s growth, but also increasing the institutional advancement of its mission across campus.
When I was a sophomore, I took my first disability studies course, “Disability and Culture” with professor Sylvia Önder, after which I applied to join the disability studies minor.
This class is where I learned the social model of disability, the idea that society is what disables people and thus what should be changed instead of the idea that disabilities are individual ailments that people should seek to “cure.” While there are limits to every theoretical frame, this one completely recalibrated how I thought about disability.
The social model of disability made me question what impairments are labeled as “disabilities” or not, such as why someone labeled as blind is considered “disabled” but not someone who needs glasses or contacts. It made me question the role of the environment, such as if someone who is Deaf is also “disabled” if everyone uses the same sign language as them. It made me question my understanding of my own ability, such as wondering if feeling undisabled by my anxiety because I’ve shaped most of my daily life around it is in itself a disabling experience.
The meaning of disability can be explored more, but the primary idea is that what “counts” as disabled is determined by society. It’s determined by how society is structured for movement and interactions, what impairments are normalizes and what capabilities are assumed based on these impairments.
When I was a junior, I took “Introduction to Disability Studies” and learned about the history of disability justice movements and their connection to initiatives at Georgetown.
As we learned the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I also heard about Georgetown’s newest dorm’s failure to pass ADA compliance standards. I learned that dorms are only required to have one accessible unit, and that Georgetown follows this law to the letter with dorms such as Henle Village, where I was living. I learned that historical properties have alternative requirements and saw this play out in the resistance to making White-Gravenor Hall actually accessible.
Despite what I was learning in class about the successes of the disability justice movement, outside of class I was witnessing the many ways disabled people’s needs were being devalued and dismissed. These examples show how just one law has affected physical accessibility on Georgetown’s campus, but they highlight the need to see disability studies not just as a minor, but also as a lens through which we must critique our society and the institutions within it — including Georgetown University.
Now a senior, I hope to see the disability studies minor grow in its institutional support — as a program and as a way of understanding what justice means.
There are logistical limits that must be addressed for the program to grow. For example, the full-time non-tenure line faculty director also teaches three courses this semester. The minor was recently awarded its first tenure line faculty spot — or rather, half a spot, as the faculty member will split their time between the philosophy department and disability studies program. I don’t wish to position this program against others in a fight for resources, only to emphasize that the impact of the program can only expand to the capacity of its staffing.
That said, continuing to expand the impact of the program is critical. This field holds lessons all Georgetown students should be exposed to, not just people in the minor. I see this significance in my friend taking her first disability studies course as part of her English major. She started it thinking it wouldn’t relate to her, but realized disability studies is a frame through which to understand people, writing and the experiences of her own life more expansively. The interdisciplinary nature of the disability studies program means that expanding the course selection not only benefits students in the minor, but also students engaged in any of the disciplines connected to it.
As an understanding of disability studies spreads, it’s also important that lessons from the discipline are reflected in changes to Georgetown’s culture and policies. This objective means working toward a campus that is physically accessible, professors who design their classrooms for maximum accessibility and a culture that does not value students by their ability to perform toward normative measures of success at the expense of their minds and bodies.
Disability studies students and faculty are already working to achieve these ideals and develop new best practices through their classes, events and research, but the rest of campus also needs to pay greater attention to what’s happening in these spaces. The disability studies program cannot be seen as a solution in and of itself, as the only place of accessible pedagogy. The program must be seen as the guiding beacon of change across the entire institution.
When I arrived on campus as a freshman, the disability studies minor did not exist, and the primary way I thought about my own ability was as “not disabled.” Now a senior, I am minoring in disability studies, and I know that my relationship to ability is complicated and ever changing.
I know that I largely benefit from ableism, able to physically access this campus and exist unmarked by any visible disabilities. However, I also know that when I feel deficient for struggling to finish a paper by the deadline because the professor only allows extensions requested 48 hours before the deadline, but I didn’t get a 48 hour notice on the feelings of anxiety that are wracking my body and breaking my concentration, it is not me that needs to change. I know that a more accessible Georgetown is possible, and that a necessary part of its actualization will be investing in and listening to disability studies.
Grace Ramstad is a senior in the College.