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Curricular Advocacy: An Undergraduate Perspective on Creating Degrees in Disability Studies

by Madeline Fowler



Although Disability Studies is a recognized course of study at over forty institutions nationwide, the degree is not yet available at a number of universities, including my own Duke University. To study this promising field, I designed my own undergraduate degree, Disability Studies and Ethical Mental Healthcare, through Duke University’s Program II individualized degree program. Given the moral imperative for disability consciousness across trades, Disability Studies should be broadly available at all institutions. This paper reviews my personal origin of interest in Disability Studies, beginning with my first-year writing course on Disability and Representation, to discuss potential methods of nurturing undergraduate interest in the field.

Curricular Advocacy: An Undergraduate Perspective on Creating Degrees in Disability Studies


Almost four years ago, I started my first year of college at Duke University with an interest in disability. I was interested because my brother has autism, but all I had ever learned was the medical model. As a result, I arrived at college thinking that training for my healthcare career would be limited to a strictly medical interpretation, where I would have to “fix” all the things that made people like my brother different. During my first semester I took an introductory Writing 101 course called Disability and Representation, a course that introduced me to Disability Studies and transformed how I think about disability. My learning spurred me to create my own major, using Duke’s Program II individualized degree program, Disability Studies and Ethical Mental Healthcare. This major in Disability Studies directly challenges the medical model in our national mental healthcare system. Since then, I joined students and faculty at Duke in the effort to create an official Disability Studies degree program at our university. In this account I’d like provide an undergraduate perspective on creating degrees in Disability Studies, and key points I learned from this process.

My overall message from my Program II experience was that the interest and resources for the creation of a Disability Studies degree may already be present at some institutions but are not made widely available to students. More specifically, we can awaken existing interest when we publicize introductory courses in Disability Studies that satisfy graduation requirements, especially for first-year students. Second, many existing courses have enough overlap with Disability Studies to create a degree. We must publicize the overlap of existing classes with Disability Studies so students may find and pursue Disability Studies beyond introductory courses. Finally, student-faculty partnership is key to provide the necessary expertise and support for new Disability Studies programs. These messages may be useful to those seeking to build undergraduate enrollment in Disability Studies classes, in order to make the case to the institution for a Disability Studies degree.

There is an enormous potential for undergraduates and especially incoming first-years to become interested in Disability Studies, if only they are introduced to the field. The majority of people come into college not having ever learned about Disability Studies, but demonstrate interest after they are acquainted with the field in an introductory class. In a survey of 69 Duke students in Disability and Representation Writing 101, created and distributed by my mentor Dr. Marion Quirici, 92% of the students reported that the class was their very first exposure to Disability Studies. However, once students are taught about Disability Studies, many of them become interested and recognize its importance as a field and its relevance to their own career interests. In a recent survey sent out my student advocacy organization, Duke Disability Alliance, 60 students said that they would pursue Disability Studies as a degree if given the choice. This data shows just how critical it is to have introductory Disability Studies courses included in the general credit requirements for undergraduates. Writing 101 is a requirement for all first-year Duke students, so having a Disability Studies option can make a lot of students interested in Disability Studies who otherwise would never have learned about the field. Another potential pathway may be through American Sign Language, which may share some overlap with Disability Studies. The ASL club at Duke proposed to add ASL courses to fulfill the foreign language requirement, but was denied. In the future, having classes like Writing 101 and ASL that fulfill graduation requirements can allow more students to learn about Disability Studies.

Second, some institutions may already have existing courses that can create a Disability Studies degree, but these classes are not widely advertised to students as containing Disability Studies content. At a school with only about five classes with the word “disability” in the title, I found that the multidisciplinary nature of Disability Studies makes it easier than expected to find relevant existing classes. I was able to find enough courses with Disability Studies overlap so I could piece together an 18-course major from 16 different departments. Some of these departments were: Global Health, Philosophy, Ethics, Cultural Anthropology, Neuroscience, Sociology, History, Psychology, Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, Religion, Public Policy, and Literature. My complete course list and original Program II application are available for public view. One of my greatest challenges in my application process, however, was that the Disability Studies components of most of these classes are not publicized, so I had to parse through individual syllabi and email professors directly to find the right courses. Thankfully, I was able to have input from my mentor Dr. Quirici, who has also been compiling a publicly available list of courses at Duke related to Disability Studies, which could be used to create a Disability Studies degree. For other institutions, if courses that had such overlap were more publicly advertised to the student body, then more students would be able to pursue Disability Studies. Lists such as the one Dr. Quirici is compiling should be made publicly available to students, and Disability Studies content should be advertised in all relevant course descriptions. This overlap should be publicized if for no other reason than because Disability Studies deserves the recognition of any other field.

I would also like to highlight how important it was in my experience to establish student-faculty partnerships to make the case for a Disability Studies degree to the Program II board. Not only did I draw from and add to the list of existing classes Dr. Quirici is compiling for the potential degree, but by this partnership she will be able to demonstrate that students would be interested in this exact program, because a student already cared enough to build it into an individualized major. The products from my major, such as my honors thesis, will also demonstrate the success of this degree to the administration. It is ultimately my hope that students in following years can continue to create Program II majors in Disability Studies based upon the program established by me and my advisors. Eventually, Disability Studies may be established as a traditional major due to repeated degrees within Program II. Many majors at Duke started out as Program II majors, and simply were added to the set of traditional-style majors after multiple students continued to repeat the same Program II year after year. The Duke Neuroscience major started out this way, for example. In fact, after my Disability Studies major was accepted, I have mentored several other students who are interested in creating their own Program II degrees in Disability Studies, most of which have had their programs accepted. We have partnered with faculty in departments such as the Duke Health Humanities Lab to establish a Disability and Health Humanities Interest Group, which now has an email listserv with over 200 members. In this way, the partnership between faculty and students provides both the expertise and the supporting evidence for a Disability Studies degree.

Finally, I would like to provide some background on how I was able to design my own major in Disability Studies at a university that had no formal Disability Studies degree. Duke University Program II is an individualized degree program at my university. The Program II department is intended specifically for students that have multidisciplinary interests, and this made the process more conducive to Disability Studies, which contains such a wide range of disciplines. The main application requirements are a personal statement, a demonstrated need for the Program II major rather than a traditional major, a justification for list of fifteen to eighteen classes, and a Capstone, or final project, proposal. The Program II department requires faculty support in the form of a faculty mentor and approval from the Director of Undergraduate Studies at a sponsoring department. My own program was sponsored by the Philosophy Department and my official advisor was Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, who was my professor for Philosophy of Disability. Finally, proposals are reviewed by the Program II Committee, composed of the director of Program II, three faculty from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and a senior in Program II. In my experience, since I was working through an established program at my university and was supported by the backing of a few faculty and the Philosophy Department, I ran into relatively few administrative issues in creating my Program II. The process took about one year for me to complete, since I had to develop a deeper understanding of Disability Studies before I could write an effective proposal.

In conclusion, the interest and resources for Disability Studies degrees are present, if we can provide the knowledge and the opportunity. This includes publicizing introductory courses that satisfy graduation requirements and publicizing the overlap of existing classes with Disability Studies to activate the pathway towards a recognized degree. Student-faculty partnerships are key to provide the necessary expertise and support for Disability Studies Programs. As interest in Disability Studies continues to grow, these are important ideas we could adopt to make the case for Disability Studies degrees at our academic institutions.

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