Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Expanding Access to Disability Studies: Reflections from Both Sides of the Classroom

By April Coughlin, Ph.D.

& Kimberly Sanford, Teacher Candidate

State University of New York at New Paltz


The intent of this multi-perspective work is to reflect on Disability Studies (DS) courses as both the creator and beneficiary of a discipline that is often overlooked in academia. We outline the process of developing an Introduction to Disability Studies course and explore how a DS framework can be applied across disciplines. We detail our construction of an inaugural Disability Studies Series, including a keynote address and student panel discussion. This panel provided insight from students who reflected on the influence of DS on their personal lives, educational paths, and anticipated careers, demonstrating the immense need for the discipline’s presence both on campus and in the general public. From our respective positions as professor and student, we elucidate both ends of a classroom dynamic and explore the potential for future DS programs on our campus. Through our own research and introspection on the success of the Intro to DS class, we identify a growing demand for additional DS-related courses and offer an avenue for the creation of a Disability Studies minor program.

Keywords: accessibility, ASL, curriculum, differentiated lesson plans, identity, inclusion, UD, Universal Design for Learning

Expanding Access to Disability Studies: Reflections from Both Sides of the Classroom

Our article utilizes multiple perspectives, first of a professor and then an undergraduate teacher candidate. These shifts in perspective are separated by a gray line and sections are bold-faced to indicate a change in subject. We use a capital “D” in Disability to differentiate it as a social marker of identity, community, and shared experiences.

Author Biographies

April Coughlin

As an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, I teach courses in the Special Education master’s degree program. My research, scholarship, teaching, and advocacy are informed by a Disability Studies (DS) framework, and I come to this work as a Disabled heterosexual woman, wheeler (wheelchair-user), mother, and former New York City public high school teacher. Being a wheeler since the age of six led to a life of Disability advocacy before I even knew what Disability Studies or Disability Rights were (Connor & Coughlin, 2016). Throughout my experiences as a Disabled adolescent, college student, high school teacher, and professor, I have encountered systemic barriers to full inclusion in almost every facet of my life. From a young age I learned how to fight for my right to access, but in school I never formally learned about the history of Disability Rights. While teaching high school English in New York City public schools, I pursued a master’s degree in Disability Studies. “Learning about DS provided me the framework to deconstruct these experiences and the language to articulate them as ableism, inequity, and injustice” (Coughlin, 2021, p. 254). This DS lens gave me the tools to help make sense of past experiences and interactions as well as lit a fire inside of me to actively resist systems of oppression and barriers to full participation for Disabled individuals in society.

Kimberly Sanford

As a current undergraduate student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, I have been working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Adolescent Education with a concentration in English and a minor in Deaf Studies. The interdisciplinary nature of our English Education program has provided me with both the content knowledge and pedagogical training necessary to effectively give students the skills to become strong readers, writers, and social advocates. The various courses within our curriculum often intertwine with each other; English courses frequently provide teacher candidates with potential materials for future classroom use and model positive teacher-student dynamics as well as community-building activities. The interconnectedness of the English and Education disciplines leads to a well-rounded experience for teacher candidates and enables us to face our future students with confidence as English scholars and educational leaders. In addition to being a student of English education I am also a self-identified bisexual, cisgender woman, and a non-disabled person. I am a member of what I have now come to know as the temporarily able-bodied community, as anyone can become  Disabled at any given point in their life. These social markers and aspects of my identity have an innate influence on my understanding of various systems of oppression and therefore shape my lived reality.

Historical Context for Disability Studies Framework in Courses

            Following my introduction to Disability Studies as an academic field and framework that provides a critical lens to articulate what many Disabled individuals, including myself, experience daily, I am compelled to incorporate this into my teaching, research, and advocacy. Linton (1998) explains:  “A disability studies perspective adds a critical dimension to thinking about issues such as autonomy, competence, wholeness, independence/dependence, health, physical appearance, aesthetics, community and notions of progress and perfection – issues that pervade every aspect of our culture” (p. 118).

When applied to teaching, the field of Disability Studies in Education (DSE) emerged, and this is the framework I use to teach courses in the Special Education master’s program and undergraduate Differentiating Instruction in the Secondary School course. A DSE framework works to “contextualize disability within political and social spheres; privilege the interests, agendas, and voices of people labelled with disability/disabled people; promote social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities and full and meaningful access” (Connor et al., 2008, p. 448).

DSE is particularly important to introduce when working with future teachers who may have minimal background knowledge or experience with Disability, yet will undoubtedly go on to teach in inclusive classrooms with Disabled and non-disabled students who come with various learning styles, support needs, and preferences. Through the Differentiating Instruction course, I introduce ​​teacher candidates pursuing a career in general education to an inclusive teaching framework that “strives for pluralistic teaching practices that create contexts for learning in which every student can identify with and connect to the school and to one another” (Baglieri, 2017, p. 4). Before enrolling in this course, a common misconception many teacher candidates hold is that since they are going to be “general educators” they will not encounter Disabled students in their future classrooms and will therefore “not have to worry about teaching those [emphasis in original] students because that’s what the special educators do.” This is the first of many myths about teaching and Disability that are quickly dispelled for my students. As classroom teachers, it is their responsibility and obligation to understand and respond to the individual needs of all their students, including students with disabilities through the implementation of inclusive teaching practices (Danforth, 2014; Valle & Connor, 2019). I impress upon teacher candidates that if they are only interested in teaching one type of learner, they should not pursue this career, because they will be doing all their students a disservice.

All students can benefit from individualized and responsive instructional practices (Tomlinson, 2014). In the DSE-focused Differentiating Instruction course, students learn about the history of Disability Rights and legislation that guarantees access to education (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004). I also introduce undergraduate students to the individualized education program (IEP) because although general educators may not be directly involved in writing IEPs, they need to understand how this legal document “can be used to sustain positive, valued understandings of disability in schools and society through its use by and for students with disabilities” (McLaughlin, 2016, p. 83). Teacher candidates gain practical experience creating differentiated lesson plans that incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies (Dolmage, 2015; Meyer et al., 2014) and various co-teaching models (Friend, 2014). Students learn the theory behind inclusion and why it matters as an integral component of effective teaching practice. We discuss the teacher’s role in actively resisting deficit-based assumptions about Disabled students and the importance of using strengths-based language and presuming competence in all learners. Most notably, I impress upon candidates that, as future teachers, they need to begin by viewing Disability as a form of diversity that must be included and valued in our schools and society.

Candidates are also encouraged to reflect on their past schooling experiences and consider their own access to K-12 education and inequities observed in relation to Disabled students in their classes. In some cases, teacher candidates come to realize they themselves have a Disability or received Disability-related educational supports and services in school. Many openly articulate their personal experiences with bullying from peers or the stigma that surrounded them when they received accommodations or modifications related to their Disability in school. These reflections often further solidify their commitment and resolve to become inclusive educators to better serve the needs of their students, both with and without disabilities. This reflection is essential to the development of their personal educational philosophy and future teaching practice.

Through the teaching of this course and feedback received from students, I recognized a growing interest in DS across disciplines, as numerous teacher candidates expressed the desire to learn more about DS beyond its application in the classroom. To my knowledge there have been only two other Disability-related programs and courses on our campus: the Deaf Studies minor and a Disability Studies in Art Education course, which is restricted to Art Education majors. The course was developed by Alice Wexler, Professor Emerita. Even the Differentiating Instruction course is restricted to students who declare an Education or Communication Disorders major. After discovering the lack of Disability-related course offerings on our campus and reflecting on the profound impact DS has had on my personal and professional life as a Disabled individual, teacher, and scholar, I was compelled to develop Introduction to Disability Studies, an undergraduate elective course housed in the School of Education. This course is offered as an elective to all students on campus, regardless of major, and fulfills the campus requirement of a diversity elective. At its inception, only one section was offered, and it quickly filled each semester, with several additional students requesting permission to enroll. In response to student interest, we created a second section of the course, which also immediately filled.

Prior to my matriculation in an undergraduate program, I had no formal experience with DS as a discipline. I learned nothing about the Disability Rights movement, which paralleled the Civil Rights movement in history classes. I never knew there were names for the various ways in which Disabled people are viewed in society. I was unaware of the essential legislation that demanded improvements concerning physical accessibility in public spaces and that made my classes integrated. This is an upsetting reality for most students based on what I experienced in Intro to DS; not a single one of my cohorts made mention of any previous exposure to the topics and themes we studied or the history of the Disability Rights movement. We were collectively ignorant about much of the content explored in the class. In retrospect, this made the Intro course all the more important. Without this introductory class I would have gone through my entire undergraduate education, as many students do, still unaware of an important aspect of American history that shapes our present reality for Disabled people. Accounts from other students support this shared experience and speak to the intentional separation of Disabled people from mainstream society. Their reflections on the lack of exposure to Disability Studies in K-12 highlight the “gaps and silences around disability that exist in our schools, communities, and culture” (Coughlin, 2018, p. 31).

One of the foundational classes in our education program is Differentiating Instruction in the Secondary School. This course is designed to prepare teachers of all disciplines to teach students across a spectrum of ability and needs in order to make our classes as inclusive and accessible as possible. For many students, Differentiating Instruction is the first (and only) class that makes explicit mention of issues Disabled people face as a consequence of social barriers, not a consequence of any individual challenges in ability. Prior to Differentiating Instruction, I took Introduction to Disability Studies. This course focuses not on accessibility in pedagogy but instead takes a historical approach to studying the dominant narratives surrounding Disability through time and the subsequent rights movements that led to social and political progress concerning accessibility and civil rights for Disabled people. This comprehensive approach also explores the various lenses and frameworks through which Disability can be perceived and experienced (Goodley, 2017). Providing these perspectives helps students analyze the actions of oppressive/governing bodies as well as members of the Disabled community across time, demonstrating how challenging the dominant narrative can help change perceptions of a marginalized community for the better.

It is because of Coughlin’s introductory class that I declared a minor in Deaf Studies. The focused study of the Deaf community gave me insight into a subsect of the Disability community, which has a rich culture, history, and language (Walker, 1986). Through this program I studied American Sign Language (ASL) with both Deaf, native signers, and ASL-certified Hearing instructors. Advanced ASL courses are only available to students with a declared Deaf Studies minor or Communication Disorders major. Learning about this language and culture gave me a multi-perspective approach to issues facing the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, especially those pertaining to accessibility and prejudice against Deaf people in American society (Hott, 2007). Integrated into this program is the social model of Disability I learned about in the Intro to DS class. The historical context I gained in the Intro course provided a foundation for my deeper understanding of this specific group within the Disability Rights movement and allowed me to further explore the various models of Disability as they are imposed on the Deaf community. The Deaf Studies minor is in high demand among the student population. Anecdotal evidence indicates that ASL classes at all levels are popular with the student body; they are some of the first courses to fill up during registration periods and the first to receive requests for additional sections and over-enrollment.

Creating the Introduction to Disability Studies Course & Series

This section is meant to serve as a guide and resource for others considering the development of a DS program at their university. In the beginning stages of creating an Introduction to Disability Studies course on our campus, I had to first determine whether there was a need for it. I began by examining course offerings across the university and discovered the topic of Disability was absent in most course titles and descriptions. This was particularly evident in the “Diversity” electives students choose from to fulfill their undergraduate general education requirement. While I ultimately recognized the need for bringing DS to our campus, I had no experience with the proposal process of creating a new course. I am forever grateful to my colleague and friend, Michael Smith, a true co-conspirator (Love, 2019) in Disability, diversity, and social justice work, who had previously navigated this process during the development of his own course and graciously guided me through it. This proposal process included the following:

  • Gathering all course proposal forms required by the university, including a justification form and narrative supplement.
  • Reviewing the University’s course catalog to make sure there were no other Introduction to Disability Studies courses previously developed.
  • Deciding on a course number and title: SPE142: Introduction to Disability Studies (since the course would be housed in the Special Education department, it seemed appropriate to use SPE, with the plans to change it to DST in the future if a Disability Studies minor were created). I wanted the title to be straightforward and foundational, as this would also be the first required course in a potential minor program.
  • Developing a course description: This course provides students with an overview of the theoretical frameworks and societal influences that have shaped the experiences of people with disabilities in the United States and internationally. Students will be introduced to Disability Studies through an examination of historical, social, cultural, political, and educational contexts, including theory and vocabulary that frame Disability discourse and perspectives on the meaning of Disability. Students will investigate and critique the ways Disability is portrayed and represented in current media, literature, art, and film. Disability will be explored as an identity that intersects with race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation as they pertain to social justice in a multicultural democratic society. Students will identify and interpret social/institutional/architectural barriers to inclusion of people with disabilities as well as reflect on their own personal, public, and professional engagement in promoting Disability rights
  • Developing a sample syllabus that included learning outcomes, course texts (required and supplemental), assignments, and a course schedule outline with major themes covered.
  • Providing a statement on the justification for the development and necessity of the course at our university: Offering an Introduction to Disability Studies course within the General Education curriculum exposes undergraduate students to foundational principles within Disability Studies and introduces them to the ways in which disabilities have been and continue to be experienced, constructed, and interpreted in society. This course is useful to students across multiple disciplines and has wide-ranging implications for their personal and professional growth. An introduction to concepts from Disability Studies may enrich their engagement in subsequent courses that explore inclusion and equity pedagogy. This course is offered for students who need to fulfill the Diversity and Ethical Reflection General Education requirements and is one of the only courses on campus that focuses specifically on Disability as an element of diversity. It may be of particular interest to students pursuing a degree in Communications, Deaf Studies, Education, Engineering, Sociology, and Social Work.
  • Submitting the course proposal, which underwent various levels of review, addressing requested revisions, and receiving final approval for the course.

To ensure full enrollment of the course in its first semester, I advertised it within the School of Education and campus-wide. I provided details about it to undergraduates enrolled in the Differentiating Instruction course and requested that they inform friends and classmates about the new course. I also disseminated information about it to colleagues in other departments. Since it fulfills the General Education diversity elective requirement and is the only course of its kind on campus, there has been consistent full enrollment each semester.

Themes/Topics Covered in the Course

While the content of the course is ever-changing with updated resources and readings, the themes and various topics covered remain consistent. We begin the course by introducing theoretical frameworks in DS and discussing the various Disability models (e.g., social, medical, socio-political, cultural) to use as a basis for analysis of Disability issues throughout the semester. The history of Disability worldwide is explored in depth and students research the treatment of Disabled individuals during various periods across time (Shapiro, 2000). Through a variety of readings and media, students explore the Disability Rights movement and influential Disabled activists instrumental in enforcing Disability Rights and representation both in the United States and abroad (Fleischer & Zames, 2011; Golfus & Simpson, 1995; Heumann, 2020; Neudel, 2011; Shapiro, 1994). We address present-day Disability Rights issues and students select current topics to research and for making presentations. present on. We interrogate ableism in the context of education, language, and social policies and practices (Dolmage, 2017; Rauscher & McClintock, 1997). Themes of Disability language, representation, stigma, and in/exclusion are threaded throughout course content, with specific attention to examining these along with ableism present in portrayals of Disability in film, literature, and social media platforms (Erevelles, 2014; Haller, 2010; Linton, 1998). A major focus of the course is on Disability as diversity and a marker of self-identity and pride (Forber-Pratt et al., 2017; Murugami, 2009; Wong, 2020). We explore a variety of first-person narratives that provide insight into the lived experiences and intersectional identities of Disabled individuals. Other topics explored include Disability in the Arts and Disability culture. Ultimately, through this course, students from different disciplines are introduced to DS and develop critical thinking skills as well as a strong grounding and understanding of Disability as diversity and Disability Rights as a social justice issue. This focus on diversity and Disability Rights prepares students to resist injustice and take action against ableism, whether in their own lives or society at large.

DS Series and Student Voices Panel

A major development in the presence of DS at our college began with Coughlin’s participation in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Faculty Fellowship. This program offered an interdisciplinary space for faculty to share materials and pedagogy addressing current DEI issues and concerns on campus and in our classes. Participation in this fellowship provided the opportunity to introduce Disability into the DEI conversation with other colleagues and led to the construction of a Disability Studies Series on our campus. The inaugural event featured keynote speaker Simi Linton, a Disability Rights activist, film producer, and author. Linton’s talk “Disability Studies in the Academic Curriculum” focused on her experiences as a Disabled woman, her advocacy work, and her Disability representation. She discussed the numerous applications of DS across the disciplines in the context of language, identity, actively resisting ableism, and enforcing Disability Rights. This event was hosted virtually on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A positive outcome of this virtual format was the widespread availability of the event to members inside and outside of the college community. Two weeks after Linton’s address we held the second event, a student panel, “Student Voices: The Impact of a Disability Studies Framework,” in which five current and former SUNY New Paltz students, including myself, spoke about the influence of DS on their personal lives, educational paths, and anticipated careers. Coughlin moderated the event, providing questions for the student panelists to respond to and shape a discussion about the importance of DS on their undergraduate education after taking the Intro DS and/or Differentiating Instruction course(s).

In preparation for the Disability Studies Series, Coughlin and I worked collaboratively in the construction of a fully accessible, screen-reader-friendly poster to promote the events. The creation of the digital poster was a collaborative effort that included the work of our campus technical support staff in the Office of Instructional Technology; this led to to finalizing the alternate text feature that was included to make the visual elements of the poster accessible to individuals using screen readers. Accessibility was the first and foremost concern when designing the poster. We focused on using easy-to-read fonts, minimizing any unnecessary information and distracting graphics, and incorporating accessibility technologies and evaluation systems to ensure the effectiveness of our technical and design choices. With some technical support, research, and troubleshooting, we created a fully accessible poster. We did this using many of the resources available to us through our campus accounts and subscriptions to programs the college already pays for. It was particularly important to make the digital flyer accessible as it was shared as a PDF, a closed format which, if not properly altered, cannot be read by a screen reader. Since we distributed the promotional flyer via email, it was essential that it incorporated as many accessible features as possible before being dispersed to the campus community.

While creating the flyer I worked with Coughlin to develop questions which would guide our discussion. We collectively chose to focus on the multiple ways in which DS has reshaped our approach to our academic pursuits and individual identities. Through this writing process we found that both Disabled and non-disabled individuals/students found great value in learning about DS as it gave us the vocabulary to articulate lived experiences and observations across a spectrum of ability. With that understanding in mind we developed questions about our exposure to DS, how we came to learn more about it formally and informally, and how it continues to impact our daily lives in personal, academic, and professional capacities.

Another important component of the panel was the presence of ASL interpreters and the use of Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). While many programs and conferences utilize one of these resources, presenting in the digital environment gave us the option to incorporate both, making the live discussion fully accessible to those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing who may or may not know ASL. The CART captioning is also useful for those who want the additional support of written text, whether or not they identify as Disabled. While the software we used to host the event does have auto-generated captioning technology, we knew that CART would provide more accurate transcription and make the event that much more accessible to participants (Captioning and CART, 2021).

The student panel event provided a collective opportunity to reflect on our learning and share our perspectives with others, while further informing the campus and community about the benefits of gaining access to and applying the field of DS in daily life. Using the questions we wrote together, the student panelists had the opportunity to respond to each question and build upon the points others made. Audience members could submit questions, which panelists answered both orally and in written form using the platform’s chat feature. The audience presence and engagement at the event assisted in bringing the discussion to life and expanded the scope of formal DS education beyond the confines of a classroom or our campus community. The outpouring of support from audience members as the event came to a close reiterated the interest in DS by students, faculty, and community members.

Reflection and Application of DS Values to Social Justice Advocacy & Education

Reflecting on teaching numerous sections of the Introduction to Disability Studies course, based on student feedback and personal observations, I have adjusted course content, structure, and required assignments. Regarding content, while still providing the seminal “must-read” texts by traditional DS authors, I revised readings and added up-to-date resources from more recent DS scholars in the field. In response to feedback from students, I incorporated additional content related to mental health, particularly as it relates to ableist practices in higher education and added first-person narratives from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ Disabled authors. Each semester I invite a series of Disabled speakers to class to share their lived experiences and viewpoints so students can learn from immediate sources and experts on Disability. In some cases, these guest speakers are former students who are empowered to share their stories. Structural changes include the transition from teaching the course fully in-person to fully online, both in asynchronous and synchronous modalities. This shift was initially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but has implications for future delivery of some sections as it accommodates many enrolled students, particularly those who are Disabled. I modified assignments based on student interest in specific topics, group dynamics in project collaboration and presentations, and the specific modality of course delivery each semester.

The new perspective I gained through DS as an undergraduate has made an immeasurable impact on my education and pedagogical choices as a teacher candidate. The most foundational understanding of the models of viewing Disability completely reshaped my understanding of my own experiences, that those of others, and provided avenues towards toward building a more equitable, accessible world for everyone. The actionable advice Coughlin provided as both a professor and Disabled woman sparked a desire to know more and do more. Feeding this interest through Differentiating Instruction, Deaf Studies, and the emerging DS Series helped further solidify my values concerning accessibility and Disability Rights advocacy. I now incorporate features of Universal Design (UD) into all my lessons, paying particular attention to delivery methods along with the physical and digital space(s) in which my students will exist. These efforts are multifaceted in making DS both an underlying and explicit feature of my classes. Integrating the values that DS has instilled in me is just the first step in making education more accessible. Following the hidden curriculum of DS and UD integration is the explicit teaching of Disability Rights history through first-person narratives and the exploration of representations in literature. Introducing DS to students at the adolescent level will assist in building the foundation of social responsibility, political efficacy, and giving both Disabled and non-disabled students the vocabulary to advocate for themselves and others (Kimball et al., 2016; Roberts et al., 2014). Introducing Disabled students to this vocabulary in their formative years through adolescence will better prepare them for self-advocacy in school and beyond, establishing confidence in their voices to demand the accommodations and access they deserve as they traverse higher education and the workforce (Daly-Cano et al., 2015). This is my primary intention as a future educator—to give students the tools they need to fight for a better, more equitable future by valuing their own social location while honoring those whose identities differ from their own. It is my hope that through this multifaceted approach I will successfully impart the lessons I learned as an undergraduate at the adolescent level, giving emerging generations the education they need to move through the world with a more nuanced understanding of for whom who it was built and how to expand that definition to be more inclusive.

Students who take Introduction to Disability Studies report a variety of benefits including an increased understanding of their own Disability identity, learning to advocate for Disability Rights, understanding Disability as culture, resisting ableist language and practices, and embracing Disability pride. Expanding the availability of this course and others within the discipline will further extend the reach of this important field of study for individuals and the greater community in which we all participate.

The Future of Disability Studies on Our College Campus

“I loved this course. It was the perfect insight on the discipline of Disability Studies and if the college offered DS as a program I would definitely consider it.”

 —Student of the Intro to DS course

Looking toward the future, we plan to continue growing DS at our university. With increased interest from students, Introduction to Disability Studies has proven to be popular as a diversity elective choice for the General Education requirements and has quickly filled each semester. In response, we added a second section of the course and are in the beginning stages of building an interdisciplinary DS minor program, as many students have expressed a desire to take additional Disability-related courses following the Intro course. We have also brought DS to the larger campus-community through development of the annual Disability Studies Series.

In creating the Intro to DS course, it is apparent that on our campus and elsewhere, Disability is often left out of the conversation around diversity. When reviewing the descriptions for “diversity-focused” courses offered, numerous markers of identity were included in the definition of diversity with Disability rarely being one of them. This further emphasizes the importance of the Intro course and the need for development of an entire Disability Studies minor.

Through the process of developing the DS minor proposal, I began by examining the structure of other interdisciplinary minor programs on our campus disciplines such as Black Studies, Deaf Studies, Film and Video Studies, and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. Each minor included core courses required within the department and a series of interdisciplinary elective courses taken through other departments that relate to the goals and content of the selected minor. This research and analysis assisted in developing the structure and format of the new DS minor. It also provided an opportunity to envision where our core DS courses may fit into interdisciplinary minors in other departments and find courses that may align well with the DS minor to potentially be taken as electives in our future program as well.

After taking a local look at other social justice-oriented minors at our university, I conducted a broader yet focused examination of well-established and popular DS minors around New York State and nationwide. I began by researching various DS programs at the City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) schools. Most programs required a total of between 15 – 21 credits based on institutional requirements. Particularly interesting was were the course number designations. Without knowing the history behind how or why each program was built, it was obvious from the “Intro” course designations that many started with just one or two people in a particular department who had an interest in Disability Studies and built the first course that eventually morphed into an entire minor program. I can certainly relate to this goal as it is what I hope to accomplish at our university. While some programs clearly began with a DS minor in mind and included the DSAB, DSP, or DST course number designation (for Disability Studies), others appear to have developed through departments such as English, Rehabilitation Therapy, Social Work, Women’s Studies, or Education-related programs. Many of the DS minors required at least half of the credits to include core DS courses, with the remaining electives ranging from “Sociology of Healthcare” (Sociology Department) and “Disability Design” (Art Department) to “Culturally Responsive Teaching” (Education Department) and “Assistive Robotics” (Engineering Department).

At SUNY New Paltz our 18-credit undergraduate interdisciplinary Disability Studies minor will be housed in the School of Education. The three or four core courses (3 credits each) will include a DST designation and the remaining courses will consist of electives from a variety of other departments across campus, such as Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; English; Deaf Studies; Art Education Sociology and Education.

Key Components of DS Minor Development

  • Begin by creating an Introductory class in DS to gauge interest.
  • Research the need for a DS minor on campus; analyze programs and courses offered to identify where a DS framework is missing and is integral to the conversation around diversit
  • Gather interdisciplinary support and collaboration from other programs and
  • Create core courses and develop syllab
  • Identify possible interdisciplinary elective courses to include in the DS minor and request approval from those department
  • Gather student support and testimonials for the importance of and need for a DS minor; this will assist with developing the justification section of the program proposa


            Recounting the experiences of building and learning from courses in Disability Studies has helped us envision a future with more opportunities to explore the subject. It is our hope that an increased awareness of the discipline starting at an earlier point in students’ K-12 education will help bridge the gaps in our collective understanding of the Disability community. We can do this by formally instituting programs about Disability Rights and the history of systemic oppression that Disabled people face and informally by integrating DS values and frameworks into our teaching of any subject. Our commitment to the ongoing integration of DS into college courses, specifically for teacher preparation programs, is also aimed at further establishing Disability Studies as a valued and essential discipline in academia which should be awarded the same respect as other subjects.


Baglieri, S. (2017). Disability studies and the inclusive classroom. (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Captioning and CART. (n.d.). Hearing Loss Association of America [HLAA].

Connor, D. J., & Coughlin, A. B. (2016). Ramping it up: Calling attention to dis/ability at the end of education’s social contract. In R. Malhotra (Ed.), Disability politics in a global economy: Essays in honor of Marta Russell (pp. 118-134). Routledge.

Connor, D. J., Gabel, S. L., Gallagher, D. J., & Morton, M. (2008). Disability studies and inclusive education: Implications for theory, research, and practice. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 12(5-6), 441-457.

Coughlin, A. B. (2018). Teaching on wheels: Bringing a disability perspective into the classroom. In M. Jeffress, & M. Sherry (Eds.) International perspectives on teaching with disability: Overcoming obstacles and enriching lives (pp. 17-34). Routledge.

Coughlin, A. B. (2021). Education is power: But only if you can get into the building. In D. J. Connor & B. A. Ferri (Eds.) How teaching shapes our thinking about disabilities: Stories from the field (pp. 249-262). Peter Lang.                                    .

Daly-Cano, M., Vaccaro, A., & Newman, B. M. (2015). College student narratives about learning and using self-advocacy skills. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 28(2), 213-227.

Danforth, S. (Ed.) (2014). Becoming a Great Inclusive Educator. Peter Lang.

Dolmage, J. T. (2015). Universal design: Places to start. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2), 1-7.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press.

Erevelles, N. (2014). Thinking with disability studies. Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(2).

Fleischer, D. Z., & Zames, F. (2011). The disability rights movement. Temple University Press.

Forber-Pratt, A. J., Lyew, D. A., Mueller, C., & Samples, L. B. (2017). Disability identity development: A systematic review of the literature. Rehabilitation Psychology, 62(2), 198-210.

Friend, M. (2014). Co-teaching: Strategies to improve student outcomes [6 pp., Laminated Guide]. National Professional Resources Inc./Dude Publishing.

Golfus, B., & Simpson, D. (1995). When Billy broke his head…and other tales of wonder

. Icarus Films.

Goodley, D. (2017). Disability studies: An interdisciplinary introduction. (2nd ed.). SAGE.

Haller, B. A. (2010). Representing disability in an ableist world: Essays on mass media. Avocado Press.

Heumann, J. E. (2020). Being Heumann: An unrepentant memoir of a disability rights activist. Beacon Press.

Hott, Lawrence. (2007). Through deaf eyes [film]. WETA-TV.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Public Law No. 108-446 20 U.S.C. §1400 (2004).

Kimball, E. W., Moore, A., Vaccaro, A., Troiano, P. F., & Newman, B. M. (2016). College students with disabilities redefine activism: Self-advocacy, storytelling, and collective action. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 245-260.

Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York University Press.

Love, B. L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press.

McLaughlin, K. (2016). Institutional constructions of disability as deficit: Rethinking the individualized education plan. In M. Cosier, & C. Ashby (eds.). Enacting change from within: Disability studies meets teaching and teacher education (pp. 83-101). Peter Lang.

Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design of learning: Theory and practice, CAST Professional Publishing.

Millett, P. (2019). Improving accessibility with captioning: An overview of the current state of technology, 6(1). Canadian Audiologist.

Murugami, M. W. (2009). Disability and identity. Disability Studies Quarterly 29(4).

Neudel, E. (2011). Lives worth living [Film]. PBS.

Rauscher, L., & McClintock, M. (1997). Ableism curriculum design. In M. Adams, L. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (pp. 198-229). Routledge.

Roberts, E. L., Ju, S., & Zhang, D. (2014). Review of practices that promote self-advocacy for students with disabilities. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 26(4), 209-220.

Shapiro, J. (1994). No pity: People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. Three Rivers Press.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. ASCD.

Valle, J. W., & Connor, D. J. (2019). Rethinking disability: A disability studies approach to inclusive practices. (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Walker, L. A. (1986). A loss for words: The story of deafness in a family. Harper Perennial.

Wong, A. (2020). Disability visibility: First-person stories from the twenty-first century. Vintage Press.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar