New disability studies minor will come to UO in fall 2016

After years of work, the University of Oregon is getting a new disability studies minor in fall 2016.

According to the UO Disability Studies Initiative, students can declare a minor or graduate specialization in disability studies next school year through the College of Arts and Sciences. The minor will include courses from various academic fields at UO, such as architecture, education, gender studies and literature. Within the minor, students will have the opportunity to interact and connect with the disabled community both on and off campus, explore how disability is connected to race, class and gender and consider how disabilities have had an impact on past and present human experiences.

The minor and graduate specialization will be the first program at UO to solely focus on disabilities and their diverse roles in society. Multiple universities nationwide already have academic programs that focus on disability studies, such as University of Washington and Pacific University.

“We have been working on this [program] for more than 20 years,” said Deborah Olson, co-coordinator of the Disability Studies Initiative and a UO assistant professor.

According to Olson, the minor and graduate specialization are still under curriculum approval processes that will begin next term, but should be approved before the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year. She’s uncertain of student enrollment estimates, but is optimistic about the program’s turnout.

“It might have to snowball and do a bit more word of mouth, but I think it will eventually be really large,” Olson said.

The disability studies minor and graduate specialization will include courses that introduce what disability studies is, courses that involve field studies and service-engaged learning and elective courses that will fit into students’ career interests. Olson says that the program will be complementary to various majors such as journalism or English and provide perspectives about disabilities that will be beneficial to their careers.

UO English professor Elizabeth Wheeler is heavily involved in the university’s disability studies program and has completed years of work within disability studies. As a person that identifies as someone with a disability, she feels dedicated to spreading the word about disability studies to the campus community.

“Disability is a really important type of diversity,” Wheeler said. “But there isn’t much about it in the U of O curriculum. I think the classroom is a great place to get that kind of grounding.”

Olson agreed, saying, “We finally have a critical mass of people and classes across the campus that can lend themselves to the minor … Its time has come.”

Both Wheeler and Olson hope that the program will have a widespread impact on the campus and local communities. They hope that the program will teach those who aren’t familiar with disability studies about people with disabilities and how they’re represented in today’s society.

“There’s still a lot of oppression and misunderstanding [about disabilities], and I would love to educate a wide range of students about it, to help change that,” Wheeler said.

Despite taking many years to develop, the disability studies program is finally on its way to the university community. Olson gives credit to the faculty on campus who have had an interest in creating new courses related to disability studies. Wheeler agrees, and also gives credit to Dean of Arts and Sciences W. Andrew Marcus and Dean of Humanities Karen Ford for giving the program the green light to move forward.

Both Wheeler and Olson hope that in the future, people with disabilities won’t be viewed with pity or discriminated against, and that the disability studies program will help further educate the UO community.

“I think the message of disability studies is that people with disabilities are just people,” Wheeler said.

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Caley Eller

Caley Eller