What Is Critical Disability Studies?

Critical disability studies dissects the ableist structures that rule society. Read more to understand the vital perspective this growing field offers.

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by Sydney Clark

Published March 2, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan, and Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.

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What Is Critical Disability Studies?

Originated in the 1970s, critical disabilities studies is a field that explores how society fails to support people with disabilities. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, critical disability theory analyzes "disability as a cultural, historical, relative, social, and political phenomenon." The field of study was the product of the 1970s disability rights marches in Washington, D.C. and the resulting Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — one of the most significant legislative advancements for people with disabilities in the United States.

Understanding and applying critical disability studies is crucial to the advancement of the disability community. Creating a more just and equitable society is impossible without the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The Advancement of Disability Studies

Disability studies is a growing field that's gaining recognition. Activists have increasingly recognized disability rights as an important component of social justice. National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) was instituted in 1945 to appreciate disabled workers and evolved into a general acknowledgment of people with disabilities in the United States. These advocacy efforts exposed the realities of people with disabilities to those who are non-disabled.

After the founding of NDEAM, several movements pushed further for the advancement of people with disabilities. Critical disability theory, founded in the late 1990s, is still the standard framework for disability studies courses. It focuses on viewing ableism and its obstacles through the lens of intersectionality. Critical disability theory states that oppressive forces like racism, homophobia, and ableism have an intertwined history and operate jointly against people with disabilities.

Advancements in disability studies have also highlighted disabled people's experiences and provoked activism to dismantle ableist structures. Legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has bolstered the fight for disability rights. Since the 1970s, people with disabilities have gained representation, rights, and platforms on which to speak out. Their narratives and experiences refute ideologies like eugenics and their fascist, anti-disability roots.

As the public learns more about disabilities, disabled people's quality of life improves. Escaping the ableism that permeates the cultural conscience is vital to the advancement of people with disabilities and society as a whole.

What Students Can Learn From Critical Disability Studies

Accessibility is a major concern in most spaces, but it is especially important in higher education. In institutions of learning, disabilities should be accommodated both inside the classroom and on the physical campus.

As per the ADA, campus buildings should contain physical supports, such as ramps and hand rails. Students with disabilities should also be given an equal opportunity to engage in coursework with the help of academic accommodations. Although institutions make accommodations like additional test-taking time and modified assignments available, these options are not always widely publicized. Students with disabilities are often left to their own devices, and other students are unaware of their peers' lack of support.

In focusing on inclusivity, disability studies reveal the wide range of the disability spectrum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of adults in the U.S. have a disability. Disabilities can be intellectual, physical, and both; some are now categorized as neurodivergence — like autism, paraplegia, and schizophrenia. However, impaired vision, stuttering, asthma, and dyscalculia (or consistent difficulty with math) are also disabilities.

The intersectional framework of disability studies can help students understand how disability interacts with other identities, including race, gender, sexuality, and class. Disability is also not a static category, but one that changes over time as people age and their bodies and minds change.

Disability studies can also help students understand the benefits of accessibility for society as a whole. Accommodations intended for people with disabilities are often useful for every person that interacts with them. Electric toothbrushes, originally meant for people with limited strength and mobility, and bendy straws, first used to assist immobilized hospital patients, are just a few examples of accommodations that benefit everyone.

Resources for Additional Learning and Awareness

The rise of critical disability theory has brought public awareness to the obstacles people with disabilities face. Organizations, the government, and the media are instrumental in spreading this information.

"Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability" by Robert McRuer is one of the oldest written sources on critical disability studies. The book focuses on the intersections of disability and queerness. McRuer argues that both identities fall outside of what is considered "normal" and that their acknowledgment disrupts the social order. After the book's publication in 2006, it became one of the primary resources for activists and in disability studies courses.

"Crip Camp," a 2020 film directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, is a documentary that focuses on a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities. The camp inspires many of its alumni to join the fight for disability rights as activists.

Finally, organizations like the American Association of People with Disabilities have continually supported the disability community for decades and continue to grow in size. They help people with disabilities in both legislative efforts and advocacy initiatives.

Conclusion

Though there are many obstacles ahead in the fight for disability rights, awareness of the ableism rampant in society is increasing. Knowledge of critical disability studies and the increased representation of people with disabilities in the media disrupts what society perceives as normal. The field of critical disability studies is necessary for breaking down ableism and advancing social justice.


Feature Image: 10'000 Hours / DigitalVision / Getty Images