Developing Diversity Competencies in an Undergraduate Disability Studies Course
By Laura T. Eisenman, Ph.D.
& Majd Subih, M.A.
University of Delaware
In this essay, we describe how we positioned an introductory disability studies course as one that would satisfy undergraduate students’ general education requirement to complete a multicultural course and demonstrate disability’s relevance to diversity education initiatives. We provide background information about the course context, present the conceptual framework for multicultural course review, share examples of course activities, and discuss student responses. Overall, students articulated key concepts and thought critically about disability in ways that reflected the diversity competencies embedded in the university’s conceptual framework. We conclude with reflections on future course refinements to support students in further developing their diversity competencies to encompass disability.
Keywords: disability studies, curriculum, undergraduate courses, diversity education
Although our university campus administration has renewed its focus within the last few years on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, as is the case with many other institutions of higher education, disability remains a neglected component that is rarely framed as a valued social identity (Davis, 2011; Shallish, 2017; Trybus et al., 2019). Ability is listed in the university’s strategic plan as one area among other individual differences that should be considered when “building an environment of inclusive excellence” to enhance student success (University of Delaware, 2022, p. 3). Yet, a quick perusal of the university’s public-facing communications would reveal that disability has limited representation where DEI activities are the focus. Most clearly, disability is associated with disability support services; similar to the findings of how disability has been represented (or not) on a large university system’s websites (Gabel et al., 2017).
As one small step to expand student engagement with disability as an important aspect of diversity, we took advantage of an opportunity afforded by the creation of a new disability studies introductory course that was part of a larger revision to our disability studies minor. We decided to request that the university approve the new course as a multicultural course. Although this was a small inroad into the university’s diversity conversation, we wanted to demonstrate the course’s relevance to the diversity competency goals established by the university. We thought the course had the potential to reach a wide array of students who might be looking for an approved multicultural course but had not considered that disability was intrinsic to understanding multicultural and diversity concepts. Because the course includes discussions of the intersectional nature of disability with other social identities, we imagined that students’ learning about the ways that disability relates to other aspects of diversity would be enhanced.
In this essay, we provide background information about the course context, present the conceptual framework for multicultural course review, and share examples of course activities. We then summarize student responses to several assignments from across the course and reflect on the ways in which those responses related to diversity competencies embedded in the domains of the university’s multicultural rubric (University of Delaware, 2022c).
New Course Design
The university has offered a disability studies minor since the late 1990s. The minor is open to all majors and is the most popular minor on campus with enrollments regularly exceeding 400 students. The new introductory course was part of a larger program update. In its 20-plus years, the minor had not evolved along with the emergent field of disability studies. The old curriculum was heavily weighted in the social sciences, reflecting the roots of the college in which it was housed. The new curriculum aimed to provide students with greater knowledge of and engagement in multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to disability. The new introductory course was designed by a cross-college group of faculty and doctoral students, which included the authors of this essay. The design group’s overarching goal for the course was to orient undergraduates to central concepts and challenges in disability studies that they could then use to explore disability more critically in other courses in the minor or their majors.
The group established four student learning objectives to anchor the course’s focus:
- Locate disability studies origins within historical and multidisciplinary contexts, including connection to students’ major or related disciplinary fields.
- Critique perspectives on the definition and construction of disability (e.g., models of disability, US/International contexts, language).
- Identify and analyze societal and environmental barriers and supports that cut across fields (e.g., employment, education, health, humanities, recreation).
- Examine students’ own relationship to disability and the life experiences of a range of people with disability.
Becoming a Multicultural Course
Taking a multicultural course is one part of the university’s undergraduate general education requirements and is framed as being aligned with the university’s inclusive excellence strategic plan component. Designated courses appear in the inventory of approved courses maintained by the university registrar. Students can search for courses that meet specific general education requirements. In 2016, the university began a review of all courses previously designated as multicultural using a new conceptual framework adapted from the Diversity Competency Model (Center for the Study of Diversity, 2021) that was developed by faculty affiliated with the university’s Center for the Study of Diversity (Jones & Lee, 2016).
To be designated as a multicultural course, a faculty member must submit information for review by the Multicultural Course Designation Subcommittee of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Faculty Senate. The application must include a course syllabus, sample assignment descriptions, and explanations of how the students are engaged with processing content. The course must be deemed to have met the criteria in at least three of the four domains adapted from Jones and Lee (2016): Diversity Self-Awareness and Perspective Taking; Cultural Difference; Personal and Social Responsibility; and Understanding Global Systems. Figure 1 presents the university’s criteria for each domain. Although disability is explicitly named in one of the four domains, at the time our course was reviewed only 2 of 345 university courses on the multicultural list mentioned disability (Black Male Experience; Sociolinguistics), and then only as a secondary element among other topics.
Multicultural Course Domains and Criteria
|Diversity Self-Awareness and Perspective Taking
|Students can articulate their own individual identity in relation to key concepts such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, social class, disability, national origin, and religious affiliation, and can also reflect on how their social position differs from, and impacts, their relationships in diverse environments. In other words, students will learn to locate themselves within larger structures of difference and understand how their own position shapes their identity and/or worldview, as well as how that identity and/or worldview may differ from others.
|Students gain in-depth knowledge of the history, lived experience, artistic production, identity and/or worldview of one or more underrepresented groups in the West (i.e., the US, Great Britain, Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and/or of a non-Western culture (or cultures). Students can articulate particular aspects and experiences of these cultures as well as how they may be similar to or different than the students’ own.
|Personal and Social Responsibility
|Students analyze the ethical, social, and/or environmental consequences of policies, ideologies, or actions on marginalized communities/groups within the US or internationally. Based on this analysis, students identify a range of potential personal and civic responses to these issues. A service learning version of this course may allow students to directly take informed and responsible action to address these challenges.
|Understanding Global Systems
|Students gain and apply the tools to think systematically about how institutions, ideologies, rhetorics, and/or cultural representations shape a people’s culture and identity, which may include their role in perpetuating inequality, whether historically or in the present day.
Notes: (Multicultural Course Requirement, 2016); bold emphasis added
Note: Adapted/Reprinted from Multicultural Course Requirement. 2022b, University of Delaware. [emphasis added in bold].
Course Format and Sample Activities
The new introductory course was organized into three units. Following a brief welcome and introduction module, the course was divided into units aligned with the design group’s first three student learning objectives. Content related to the fourth objective (disability relationship and experience) was threaded through each unit. Some central concepts (e.g., ableism) were revisited across the units. We structured course activities using an adapted Team-Based Learning (TBL) format (Sweet & MIchaelsen, 2012). TBL involves a structured routine of individual and group work to support students’ engagement and deepen their understanding of the material through frequent discussions with other students. Students were assigned to permanent groups of four to five students for the semester. Where possible, groups were organized such that each student in a group had a different academic major and academic level.
In accordance with TBL routines, the typical workflow of a unit began with individual and group readiness assurance tests, that is, brief quizzes based on assigned initial readings that covered a few foundational ideas for the unit. The purpose of these brief quizzes was to encourage individual accountability for engaging with course materials, support group discussion of core course concepts, offer immediate feedback as needed, and lay the foundation for application activities. Students completed the individual quiz first and then immediately completed the same quiz with their group members. Following completion of the group quiz, the whole class discussed and clarified concepts. As needed, the instructor provided brief lectures about the material to support understanding.
During each unit, students completed several individual and group application activities to build on the initial ideas, explore more concepts, and reflect on their understanding of key content; culminating in a final group project for each unit. In TBL (Sweet & MIchaelsen, 2012), the purpose of application activities is to engage the class in investigating, analyzing, and synthesizing new information. Within each unit, individual group members were responsible for contributing to the group’s work by locating sources, writing brief essays, or creating other materials as instructed. Small groups collaborated during class on multiple tasks provided by the instructor and based on additional assigned readings, videos, and lectures. Groups periodically shared the results of their application activities with the whole class. Each of the three units ended with the groups sharing their final unit products online for whole class review and evaluation. Students were assessed on the quality of their individual work (i.e., knowledge of and substantive responses about key concepts) and completion of group assignments. Students also individually completed unit exams consisting of multiple-choice questions and a set of reflective essays (e.g., include explanations and examples, make connections among personal understanding, course concepts, and source material).
In our application for multicultural course status, we submitted descriptions of several of the individual and group application assignments and the essay portion of the unit exams. Table 1 lists the titles of the sample assignments submitted for review by domain. Each assignment is described in the following narrative.
List of Sample Assignments Submitted for Review
Domain Sample Assignments
Diversity Self-Awareness and Perspective Taking Disability and Your Discipline
Cultural Difference Disability Culture Rap
Personal and Social Responsibility Disability “Awareness” and Social Change
Understanding Global Systems Information Brief
Diversity Self-Awareness and Perspective Taking
Disability & Your Discipline. This individual activity occurred in unit 1 where students were beginning to learn how the disability studies field is different from other fields. They also explored their own interests in disability. As with most individual assignments in this class, students shared their responses in small groups that then reported out to the whole class for further discussion. In the first part of the assignment, students were instructed to search for articles in disability studies journals that related to their major or area of interest. They also searched in disciplinary journals related to their major to explore how disability was represented. They identified two issues that inspired them to want to know more or take action and described or speculated on the work that needed to be done on those issues.
Perspective Check. In unit 2 after students have been introduced to some dominant perspectives on disability from within the field of disability studies through readings, videos, and mini-lectures, they completed the Perspective Check assignment to consider their own understanding of what disability is. Then they discussed their responses with other students. Students first read about explanations of disability models ([e.g.] Disabled World, 2010) and approaches ([e.g.] Gill, 2019; Mallett & Runswick-Cole, 2014), and then responded to prompts about which model most intrigued them, which model was closest to their own understanding of disability, and possible implications of viewing disability in these ways.
Unit Exams. At the end of each unit, students took a two-part exam. The first part was a multiple-choice quiz that assessed their knowledge of major concepts from the unit. The second part involved brief essay responses related to identifying key ideas in a student-selected chapter from the edited collection, Disability Visibility (Wong, 2020). They were asked to extend and connect the key ideas from the selected chapter to the unit concepts and then reflect on their personal responses to the chapter as related to their own relationship to disability and the overarching theme of the unit.
Disability Culture Rap. In Unit 2, students watched a video interpretation by Cheryl Marie (Wade, 2020) and/or read Disability Culture Rap (Wade, 1992). They responded to a set of questions regarding connections to the unit theme (What is Disability?) and their personal response to the content. The instructor invited several groups to report out to the whole class and initiated further discussion of key ideas or points needing clarification. Discussion questions prompted students to identify and briefly explain examples of historical views of disability, elements of disability culture, and segments that stood out to them.
Critical Intersections. To prepare for this assignment and related group activities students read an essay that critiqued “white disability studies” and called for a “critical intersectional disability studies that centers the needs, perspectives, and interests of marginalized people with disabilities and enables the advancement of disability justice” (Miles et al., 2017). Students connected the essay to other concepts from unit 2. Then, they located a source by or about a disabled person from a marginalized community who represented a critical disability voice.
In class, students discussed their work in their small groups and with the whole class. In a later group activity, students selected a “critical voice” from among those identified by their group members and then conducted more research into the perspectives and work of that person. Each group created a presentation for the class that provided an introduction of their selected person. They highlighted the experiences, perspectives, concerns/interests of the person, their relationship to disability, and publications (broadly defined) by/about the person that reflected their voice. Groups shared their information briefs with the whole class through a discussion forum. Each group reviewed the work of three other groups and provided feedback based on a simplified version of the grading rubric.
Personal and Social Responsibility
Disability “Awareness” & Social Change. In unit 3, students discussed readings by and about disability activists and allies. They also read and offered individual reflections about a chapter on disability and promoting social change and an article that described the problems with disability simulation activities. These activities led to a group activity in which each group brainstormed an outline for a disability “awareness” and social change event for the campus using a disability studies lens. This assignment was intended to challenge students to push beyond typical ideas of “education” and “awareness” activities that they may gravitate toward. Students were told that learning outcomes for participants must include: (a) greater appreciation for disability as an aspect of human diversity and (b) recognizing their own relationship(s) within and to the disability community. Each group shared their event plan with the whole class via a discussion forum and received feedback on how well the event was likely to meet the proposed learning outcomes.
Information Brief. In unit 3, students explored disability issues that are relevant around the world by examining elements of the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They reviewed an Easy Read and full version of selected convention articles (IDEAS, 2021; United Nations, n.d.). Then they located a source about a particular issue of interest to them. These might be issues that had deep historical roots (e.g., institutionalization), current “hot topics” (e.g., web accessibility), or issues relevant to a specific country (e.g., access to education in a global south country). With their small group, they discussed the issues they each identified and then selected one for the group to research.
Each group developed a brief informational presentation on their selected topic. The main content had to include a description of the issue, explanation of its importance, examples that help to illustrate the issue, and a description of what has been or is being done about the issue. The presentation had to clearly identify societal and environmental barriers and/or supports that influence this issue and how the voices of disabled people are or could be centered in the work being done on the issue. Students also provided annotated references for some key resources about the issue that would help a reader to find more information. Groups shared their presentation with the whole class through a discussion forum. Each group reviewed the work of three other groups and provided feedback based on a simplified version of the grading rubric.
Examining Students’ Responses
The university does not require evidence of whether an approved multicultural course actually supports students to meet the criteria within the multicultural rubric. It is only required that an instructor describes how the sample assignments are aligned with at least three of the rubric domains. However, we were interested in examining students’ responses to the assignments for two reasons. Given the limited focus on disability in the university’s menu of multicultural courses, we wanted to ensure that identified assignments were doing the work of engaging students in developing diversity competencies. And, as with any new course, we knew that adjustments to content and approach might be needed.
We decided to examine a sample of responses from students in the first semester in which the course was officially designated as a multicultural course. During that semester, the first author, a professor who also advises students in the minor, taught the course and then also taught it again in the next semester. The second author, a doctoral student, was familiar with the course objectives as one of the original co-designers and became the course instructor in the subsequent semester. Although the university’s institutional review board deemed the study of students’ responses to course materials as exempt from human subjects review, we asked permission from students to include their individual assignment responses. Table 2 shows demographic information for the 30 students who gave permission in comparison to the 32 who did not. This information was available through the course rosters and the minor program enrollment data. We were not able unable to gather information about how students identified racially or ethnically. In this first semester, the course primarily enrolled students who had declared a disability studies minor (87%). We include this demographic information to illustrate the variety of students engaged in the course as well as groups that may be less well-represented.
Characteristic Participants Non-Participants Total Enrolled
n= 30 (48.4%) n= 32 (51.6%) n=62 (100%)
Cognitive Science 8 (26.7%) 9 (28.1%) 17 (27.4%)
Psychology 4 (13.3%) 4 (12.5%) 8 (12.9%)
Exercise Science 3 (10%) 3 (9.4%) 6 (9.7%)
2 (6.7%) 4 (12.5%) 6 (9.7%)
2 (6.7%) 1 (3.1%) 3 (4.8%)
Health Behavior Science 2 (6.7%) 6 (18.8%) 8 (12.9%)
Human Services 1 (3.3%) 0 (0.0%) 1(1.6%)
University Studies 1 (3.3%) 0 (0.0%) 1 (1.6%)
History 1 (3.3%) 0 (0.0%) 1(1.6%)
Neuroscience 1 (3.3%) 0 (0.0%) 1(1.6%)
Music Education 1 (3.3%) 0 (0.0%) 1(1.6%)
Linguistics 0 (0.0%) 1 (3.1%) 1(1.6%)
Medical Diagnostics 0 (0.0%) 2 (6.3%) 2 (3.2%)
Communication Interest 0 (0.0%) 1 (3.1%) 1(1.6%)
Political Science 0 (0.0%) 1 (3.1%) 1(1.6%)
Freshman 1 (3.3%) 1 (3.1%) 2 (3.2%)
Sophomore 16 (53.3%) 14 (43.8%) 30 (48.4%)
Junior 10 (33.3%) 14 (43.8%) 24 (38.7%)
Senior 3 (10%) 3 (9.4%) 6 (9.7%)
Male 0 (0.0%) 3 (9.4%) 3 (4.8%)
Female 30 (100%) 29 (90.6%) 59 (95.2%)
None 8 (26.7%) 12 (37.5%) 20 (32.3%)
Disabled 3 (10%) 1 (3.1%) 4 (6.5%)
Parent of Disabled Child 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
12 (40%) 7 (21.9%) 19 (30.6%)
Unknown 7 (23.3%) 12 (37.5%) 19 (30.6%)
For each of the four domains of the multicultural rubric we selected one assignment to review. In the two domains where we had submitted more than one sample assignment, we chose to review the assignment that afforded students the opportunity to respond in more depth. Our original plan proposed examining unit exams under the first domain (Diversity Self-Awareness and Perspective Taking). Yet, since unit exams capture students’ thinking at different points over the course, we decided to review a sample of students’ unit exam reflection-question responses across all four domains. We uploaded students’ anonymized responses to Dedoose [https://www.dedoose.com/], a web-based platform for conducting qualitative analyses. We used a deductive approach (Miles et al., 2020) to examine student responses. We asked, what evidence is there that students’ responses to the assignment prompts reflect this domain’s criteria? We attended to common responses, the variety of responses, and aspects of the domain’s criteria that were less represented or missing. We also attended to whether or how students positioned disability as an aspect of human diversity.
Although responses were anonymized, the instructor could in some cases discern which student’s responses were being examined based on familiarity with some individuals through her advising role and recognizing patterns of student performance across the course. To counter the potential bias in the instructor’s interpretation of some student work, both authors read half of the 30 assignments in each domain and selected excerpts that reflected the domain criteria or connected disability and diversity. We then met to compare selected excerpts to discuss how they fit the domain criteria, the types of student responses, and aspects of students’ responses that were difficult to characterize due to limited or contradictory explanations from students. Next, we reviewed a sample of students’ responses to the reflection questions on the three unit exams. We both randomly selected three different students for each exam: totaling 18 (20%) of the 90 exams. We coded responses across the four multicultural rubric domains and responses that related to disability as diversity.
Student Responses to Assignments
In this section, we have organized students’ responses to the selected assignments according to the four domains of the university’s multicultural rubric. We have summarized and used students’ words to illustrate key ideas.
Diversity Self-Awareness and Perspective Taking
We examined the Perspective Check assignment from unit 2 to represent the Diversity Self-awareness and Perspective Taking domain. Students were asked to identify and reflect on different approaches to disability that were most interesting to them. Most students aligned their thinking about disability to the minority and identity models of disability. The remaining students selected the relational model, affirmation model, social adapted model, social model, empowering model, and the spectrum model. Those who selected the minority model stated that it “views people with disabilities similarly to other minority groups.” One student compared disability as a group to other minority groups and stated, “[I view] disabled individuals as being a minority experience no more or less than other minority groups experiences for sex, race or sexual orientation.” Another discussed how their own status as a minority and activist influenced their understanding of disability as a minority group, “My understanding of disability greatly relates to my understanding and experience as a minority group and being an activist in the groups that I am a part of. This is partly why I believe that my understanding of disability comes mostly from the minority model of disability.”
As students engaged in aligning themselves with different disability models they reflected on their own perceptions of and attitudes towards toward disabilities. Often students would state “I learned that,” “I have realized,” “in the past my view of disability,” “rather, I understand,” or “I became aware” to compare their previous understandings of disability and indicate change in perspective and attitude as one wrote: “I became aware […] of my harmful thinking […] I have begun to actively change my behavior.” Many students urged a stop to the stigmatization of disability identity. They added, disability should be viewed as part of the “diversity of the human condition” and as “part of human life.”
Students also reflected on social perceptions of disability and how those have influenced their understanding of disability. Students highlighted the fact that disability is a “social construct” and reflected on the many ways society deprivileges disability. A few students emphasized that the lack of disability representations “in many cultural aspects,” especially when they were younger, did not allow them to be exposed to different narratives of disability. This was also evident in students’ unit exams, as one student stated “My family is very fortunate that my aunt has this supportive place to live, where expectations of her are high, and where she is treated with respect. Thus, after reading this chapter, I am able to think about my relationship to disability and can see how lucky my aunt’s living situation is.”
Students reflected on their own social positioning and discussed how those influenced their perceptions of disability. They also compared their social standing to other social positions: globally, racially, or by social class. For example, one student mentioned, “When I analyze my everyday life in the global north, I can see how my life is very different from the global south.” Another student reflected on the intersectionality of identities: “it truly made me look at the relationship between racial identity and being disabled.” A third student reflected on the possibility that being “raised in a liberal, middle-class area” influenced her opportunities to encounter and learn about disability as part of “everyday life.”
In their unit exams many students reflected on how the readings influenced their understanding of disability in general, and their relationship with disability. For example, one student wrote, “The ideas presented under the key points and extensions greatly influence my thinking and has helped me reflect on my relationship to disability.” Another mentioned that “The ideas I presented under key points and extensions influence my thinking about my own relationship to disability because they open my eyes to new ideas that I never even thought about before.” A third wrote, “My ideas I listed under my key points and extensions influence my thinking about disability because I help raise dogs for the blind.”
Some students asserted disability as a positive identity and recognized disabled individuals as valuable. One student stated: “I think that the identity model takes it a step further by talking about a positive identity. […] After Gill’s readings, I understand more about how someone with a disability is ‘disabled and valuable.’” Another added, “This ideal influences the perception of individuals with disabilities by viewing them as contributing members of society and focusing on the importance of inclusion and respect for all individuals.” Being disabled and proud was another discussion point among students, as one student wrote: “I think that having a disability should be something a person would want to embrace and take pride in.”
However, in embracing a more positive approach to disability identity a few students erased the diversity of experiences through euphemisms. For example, one student in their reflection on working with disabled children stated, “The children I have worked with all had the most amazing positive personalities and were always a joy to be around.” Still, the student highlighted the social barriers faced by disabled individuals, stating: “Society holds these individuals back because they don’t give them the same opportunities.”
To represent the cultural difference domain, we examined the Disability Culture Rap activity from unit 2. This was an individual application activity. Students considered how disability had been historically defined, and they reflected on disability culture, its elements, and representations. Further, in the unit exams, students had the opportunity to connect their thinking about disability culture to the unit question “what is disability?” and their own relationship to disability. However, looking at the sample of unit exams specifically we did not see evidence that supported this domain.
Yet, on the Disability Culture Rap individual activity, students had much more to say. Student responses captured the different ways in which disability had been viewed and defined historically: “deficit,” “worthless,” “bodies that shake, rattle, and roll,” “abnormal,” “something shameful,” “unfit,” “outcasts,” “freaks,” “objects that need to be fixed,” damaged, unhealthy, and broken, burden, “second class citizens,” “lives unworthy of life,” “defective,” “disposable” “waste of space,” “less than,” “cripples,” etc. Some added and stressed the “normalcy of disability” and how it is “a way of life.” On reflecting on how disability definition is socially constructed one student stated, “It showed that it is not one direct, set concept, but rather one that changes, evolves, and differs from person to person.”
Students also recognized and discussed disability culture and disability as a community and a group. In their responses students listed a variety of disability culture elements that corresponded to themes in the video (Wade, 2020). The importance of studying history and reclaiming ancestors was echoed in many responses. In many cases, students offered phrases directly related to the specific language used in the video (Wade, 2020): “naming and claiming,” “reclaiming of words,” “claiming experiences,” “claiming and renaming survivors from the past,” “passing the word,” “spreading awareness,” and advocacy were repeated by many students. Further, they discussed how disabled individuals are “freedom fighters.” They recognized disability identity and pride as another important element of disability culture. Many also spoke about self-expression and artistic production within the disability community.
Evidence that students were thinking about disability as human diversity was present in students’ responses. Students recognized that, “People with disabilities are different, but not less,” that it entails “a different way of living,” and that it is “another aspect of living that can be experienced in many different ways.” It is “a way of life.” They referenced the disability group as a minority group and compared disability status to gender and race noting that separate is never truly equal.
Students also recognized the diversity within the disability community and the intersectionality of identities within it. For example, they stated: “different, but united” and “One important element of disability culture that stuck out to me was the idea that it is composed of people who are individual, authentic and different but united.” Another stated, “Another element of disability culture is the idea of individuality and personal identity. Many people with disabilities identify themselves by parts of their lives outside of their disability. Some are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, which is a large part of their identity.”
Personal & Social Responsibility
We examined the Disability Awareness and Social Change assignment from unit 2 to represent the domain of Personal and Social Responsibility. This assignment involved two types of responses: individual reflections about promoting social change and a group activity leading to a proposal for a campus disability event. For the unit exam questions, students reflected on their relationship to disability or the overarching theme of the unit.
A common response among students to the individual portion of the assignment was the idea of taking personal responsibility to confront prejudice. One student noted that confronting prejudicial treatment is important for promoting social change because it is something “that can be done by anyone in their daily life.” Students saw confrontation as difficult but ultimately important for stopping a discriminatory act, educating others in the moment, and creating a change in attitudes toward disability over time.
Students also thought it would be important to create opportunities among people with disabilities to share experiences of injustice, leading to creation of a supportive community of disabled advocates and allies that could take collective action. Others noted that a nondisabled person should begin with thinking about “how everyone should be treated” and then paying attention to the “discrepancies between what should be happening and what is not happening.” Some students described this as being an advocate for basic human rights. Several students also cautioned not to generalize the nature of the disability. One stated, “I believe that creating generalizations about disabilities can be harmful and ignoring the intersectionality of systems of oppression prevents from a true expression of human rights.”
Students advocated for promoting the leadership of people with disabilities in disability organizations and collective actions, which they saw as important “for real social change to succeed.” They also commented on the need to increase the political participation of disabled people through voter registration, professional development, and networking. Some students suggested that disruptive collective actions such as protests were important for pushing social change.
When pondering possible activities for a campus disability event, a common thread across student responses was to invite disabled people to share stories about their experiences to help educate others about inaccessibility and ableism. One group suggested it would also be important to ask everyone (disabled or not) to discuss what disability means to them.
Beyond sharing stories, several groups suggested interactive exercises such as having everyone participate in an “inaccessibility” scavenger hunt, invite people to note what aspects of campus are accessible or not, or do a disability-focused “privilege walk” exercise. After such activities, they would hold discussions about what can be done to improve campus experiences for students with disabilities. One group described this as “normalizing accessibility.” Another group advocated for holding an event that featured “different minority groups and different disabilities” for the purpose of bringing “awareness to the barriers faced by different groups on campus and how all [campus community members] can work together to create a more unified and accepting campus.” Tying into their individual responses about personal responsibility, other groups suggested that there should be opportunities to learn about how to confront ableism. This would involve providing people on campus with opportunities to learn from “activists, advocates, and allies…lots of different ways to get involved and help to fight for human rights for those with disabilities.”
Three groups took an arts-based approach. One suggested inviting people with disabilities from the community to create portraits that highlighted their intersectional identities. The group said, “The mosaic represents the beauty of diversity and highlights the strength of unique individuals as they face obstacles because of intersectionality with disability.” Another group proposed holding an “art show that showcases the talents and perspectives of the disability community.” Their goal would be “breaking down stereotypes.” Another group suggested an “open mic night” of diverse performances by disabled people to generate appreciation for disability.
Only three of the 18 students’ unit exam responses that we reviewed made connections to the idea of personal or social responsibility. One concluded that everyone should “become more knowledgeable about these issues [affecting people with disabilities] and we must learn how we can advocate for change.” The others suggested that positive change can result from “creation of laws and presence of strong advocacy” and the need to “push for rights of disabled people.”
Across the assignment and unit exam responses, some students connected the idea of disability as diversity to their reflections about personal and social responsibility. Some realized that they had shifted their own focus to recognize, as one student commented, the “social, political, cultural, and economic factors that define disability.” Others cautioned about avoiding overgeneralizations about disability experiences, noting for example that “disability is diverse” or “look at people with disabilities as individuals with their own needs and desires.” One student connected these ideas by stating, “The disability experience is far from universal and a lack of focus on the intersectionality of other systems of oppression can create misconceptions about the disability experience.”
Understanding Global Systems
The Information Brief group assignment from unit 3 represented the domain of Understanding Global Systems. This assignment involved group research into an issue they selected and creation of a summary presentation about key aspects of the topic. As before, the unit exam questions allowed students to reflect on their relationship to disability or the overarching theme of the unit. Of the 11 group products we examined, five focused on education topics: (a) general issues of access to education; (b) physical and technological accessibility of schools; (c) accessibility of services in early childhood; (d) inclusion in K-12 education; and (e) disability studies in education. Two groups wrote about transportation topics: increasing transportation accessibility and ridesharing apps. Two groups focused on abuse: violence against disabled people and abuse of women with disabilities. One group wrote about the right to life in the community and another wrote about healthcare disparities faced by people with disabilities. Although most groups focused on issues within the U.S. context, several groups identified relevant examples of their issue in other countries or commented on the global scale of the issue.
The Information Brief assignment did not allow for in-depth explanations of issues, yet groups identified a variety of social structures that negatively affected people with disabilities. Examples of barriers they noted included: (a) inadequate funding; (b) limited community-based funding; (c) financial dependency; (d) bureaucratic processes; (e) lack of effective support service; (f) lack of individualization; (g) limited communication method; (h) prejudice; (i) and social isolation. One group noted that laws help but are not sufficient. Another stressed that lack of community access is a civil rights issue. Groups also provided examples of social responses to their issues that typically represented the opposite of the barriers cited (e.g., more funding, less prejudice). Students’ responses to the unit exams indicated that they were “more attuned to ableism” and how “disabling society prevents people from living lives to the fullest.” Especially on the first two unit exams, students reflected on rejecting a medical model and using a social model lens to recognize barriers faced by people with disabilities.
When considering the roles of disabled people in the issues covered in the Information Brief assignment, groups promoted the importance of disabled people’s involvement or offered stories about an individual’s experience with the issue, but they offered few concrete examples. One group commented on the need for more disability leadership in education. Another group elaborated on the need to include people with disabilities in decision-making and provide greater media representation. They stated that, “People with disabilities have ideas, information, and inventions that can be extremely useful to society.” A few additional examples were offered through the unit exams. For instance, one noted that “low expectations and sheltering individuals with disabilities does a disservice to the individual but also the community.” Another commented on the role of social media as a “platform to inform, advocate, and to be connected with similar people. On the other hand, media can have a downside, in that it can expose people to subtly ableist views.”
Student commentary in the Information Brief and unit exams rarely reflected any explicit consideration that positioning disability as an aspect of diversity might be relevant to the social, political, and cultural structures they identified. One exception was a student’s commentary on their unit exam regarding disabled mothers. They stated, “We have known for a while that society needs to reshape its view of motherhood, but we need to remember to include all diversities including disability in that reshaping. Mothers look different and fulfill different roles for all children.”
Our aim was to examine if the assignments that we had intended to reflect the university’s multicultural course rubric did in fact elicit student responses that corresponded to major diversity competencies embedded in the rubric (University of Delaware, 2022c ). We also were curious about whether students would recognize and discuss disability as an aspect of diversity. We recognize that finding evidence of students’ engagement with these ideas is not the same as making claims about individual student learning outcomes, especially given the introductory level of the course. Although students used phrases such as “I learned” or “I became aware,” indicating acquisition of knowledge or a shift in thinking, we did not have a way to check with students regarding our interpretations of their work or the longer-term impact on their thinking. Also, we examined only a few assignments from the course. Other assignments may have revealed different types and patterns of responses.
Based on our review of students’ responses, we concluded that the course activities and assignments did encourage students to critically examine important concepts from each of the four multicultural course domains. Yet, students’ understanding of disability as part of human diversity fluctuated across domains. Further, students’ responses lacked some depth regarding critical reflection on their individual identities and cultural contexts. In the following sections we discuss aspects of the course that appeared to support the development of students’ diversity competencies and where we observed less impact. In both cases we consider ways to strengthen the course.
Developing Knowledge of Disability and Diversity
Students’ responses frequently focused on newly acquired information and their initial reactions. For example, in their responses students reflected on a group of disability models and identified the ones that most aligned with their current view of disability. Many students also commented or shared stories about how their social, racial, and gender positions influenced their understanding of disability. The Disability Culture assignment was especially powerful for prompting students’ thinking about disability from alternate perspectives. Through that assignment students identified historical perceptions of disability, a variety of disability lived experiences, elements of disability culture, and the idea of taking pride in disability identity. They were able to comment on the intersectionality of identities and contexts. Moreover, they talked about the variety of artistic production (e.g., comedy, theater, rap) within the disabled community as represented in the video.
On other assignments and exams, students recognized the ways that negative individual and social views of disability may manifest in individual prejudicial actions, limited appreciation for capabilities of disabled people, and restrictions on their human rights. Their suggestions for responses to marginalization of disabled people ranged from advocating for one-on-one confrontation when a prejudicial act was observed to identifying ways to center the voices and leadership of people with disabilities and pondering ways to facilitate larger collective actions. Students identified a variety of current issues affecting the lives of people with disabilities in the U.S. context and globally. They highlighted social structures that limited opportunities for community access or belonging and, ultimately, hindered disabled individuals’ human rights.
Across the assignments and unit exams, students articulated the diversity of disability experiences among individuals and communities. They also commented on the complexities of understanding disability as intersectional with other aspects of human diversity.
A guiding principle in disability studies is centering the voices and experiences of disabled people (Society for Disability Studies, 2021). Enacting that principle in this course through multiple first-person stories assisted students to grapple with key concepts such as intersectionality and ableism. Students enjoyed reading essays by disabled people (Wong, 2020) that acquainted them with a range of diverse disability experiences across multiple life domains. Allowing students to select chapters that were most intriguing to them created space for them to engage more personally with the material. Videos such as Disability Culture Rap (Wade, 2020) and Stella Young’s TEDTalk (Young, 2014) in which people with disabilities shared the social and cultural dimensions of their experiences were especially powerful for generating student commentary.
Students’ responses to assignments that examined disability in different global contexts or introduced concepts from the global south (e.g., ubuntu) prompted student comments about their limited prior knowledge and challenged them to extend their ideas about disability beyond the more familiar U.S. context. In the future, we may need to provide more background material and opportunities for lecture and discussion on these topics. The team-based learning group structure of the course may also help to foster students’ engagement with new material by providing many opportunities for discussion. Especially in a large introductory course, the frequent opportunities to discuss new ideas with peers from other majors may have supported students to refine and develop their understanding of the material over the course. The group structure also affords opportunities for the instructor to check students’ understanding of key concepts by requiring them to report out to the whole class.
Developing Deeper Critical Reflections
Throughout our analyses of students’ responses, we noticed instances where students provided contradictory responses, simplified accounts of disability experience, or used euphemisms about disability. Although students engaged with the material, we hoped that they would have provided deeper and more critical reflections of the material. For example, when explaining why they selected a model, a few students who self-identified as being from a minority group further elaborated on their individual identity. However, not many students explicitly articulated their identity in relation to disability models. Students did not offer critical comparisons with their own cultural experiences. Some students resorted to simple good/bad positioning of social responses to disability, including their own. This may be related to a desire to be viewed as having adopted a “correct” perspective on disability, which was a concern expressed verbally by some students in the earliest class discussions as they encountered new language and wrestled with the idea of ableism.
When challenged to think about creating social change related to disability, students offered some insightful options, but also occasionally defaulted uncritically to simpler, and possibly more familiar, “awareness” activities to educate nondisabled people about disability issues—even when prompted to target alternative outcomes. Students did acknowledge the importance of attending to the experiences of disabled people themselves, yet most only commented in general terms about how disabled people could be centered or even instrumental in making changes on issues of importance to them.
Such lack of depth may be due to several reasons. The variability across student responses is perhaps not surprising in an introductory course that enrolls first-year through more senior students whose prior engagement with key course concepts also varied. In some cases, the structure of some assignment questions may have not prompted students to deeply reflect or critique ideas in a way that reflected the multicultural rubric concepts. Those assignments could be modified to encourage students to make stronger connections to key concepts. Another reason may simply be the unfamiliarity or complexity of concepts tackled in the class. For example, the nuances of concepts such as awareness, privilege, ableism, colonialism, euphemism, ‘inspiration porn,’ to name a few, may be glossed over or not fully articulated during small group discussions, which occupy much of the course structure.
The large class size also made in-depth discussion more difficult. As students engaged in their small group discussion the instructor could not always provide instant feedback and check-in with all groups. The large size of the class also limited the number of groups who reported out after some activities. Moreover, virtually teaching such a large class (we used Zoom video conferencing during the pandemic) made it more difficult to monitor and support student engagement in small group discussions. Smaller size classes can help avoid such difficulties.
Team Based Learning (TBL) (Sweet & MIchaelsen, 2012) assumes that each group will have at least one student who can actively prompt their group members to think more critically about the material and clarify misunderstandings, which is not always the case. Hence, shallow understanding can go unnoticed by the instructor during class but become apparent when examining students’ assignments. TBL design can be modified to incorporate more whole class discussion, during which the instructor facilitates and guides the conversations.
This course is one of the few at our university that engages students in further developing their diversity knowledge and competencies through the study of disability. However, we are optimistic about possibilities for the future. Counter to prevailing discourse in higher education (Gabel et al., 2017; Trybus et al., 2019), this course offers a tangible demonstration of how disability is relevant to broader diversity conversations at the university and shifts the focus from disability as an individual problem to a social phenomenon and valued identity. Like van Heumen and Koneczny (2019), we note that one advantage of a large enrollment course is the potential to reach a wide range of students across a variety of majors and future professions. Since its initial offering, enrollments in the course have exceeded 90 students per semester with an increasing variety of majors and students who at time of enrollment had not yet declared a disability studies minor. This expansion of the diversity of enrolled students creates an opportunity to conduct deeper analyses about the influence of individual student demographics relative to responses to course material as well as the longer term impacts on their understanding of and action related to disability both on campus and in the community. Further refining the course relative to the diversity competencies suggested by the university’s multicultural rubric also could lead to an expansion of students’ understanding of disability justice as relevant to broader social justice concerns (Bialka & Morro, 2018). This, in turn, may help to build a campus community of advocates and allies who ensure that disability is embedded in university diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
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