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Instructor Q&A: Dis/ability Studies in Education

January 29, 2020

We spoke with instructor Denise Herrenbruck about the Disability Studies discipline and how it’s imperative to equity in the classroom. Denise’s upcoming online course, Dis/ability Studies: Confronting Ableism, Stigma and Privilege in Education, begins October 12, 2020.

You’ve been involved with this work since the 1980s. How did you get started?

After earning a Master’s degree in a dual licensure program for General and Special Education, I moved to Berkeley, California, a center of disability rights movement activity. Disabled activists fought for more access to education, greater mobility in community, and more autonomy over their lives. They did not want to be passive recipients of services prescribed to them by “experts” on their condition. 

“One of the goals of Disability Studies in Education is to foster classroom communities to become purposeful in supporting how children find identity and value in themselves.”

As a young teacher I worked closely with disabled students and their parents to write educational goals with a more holistic approach to understanding their needs. We understood that supporting diversity and inclusion was about more than sharing physical space or holding expectations that all students could reach academic benchmarks within similar timeframes. Inclusion is about respecting and valuing human difference.

Can you give us a brief introduction into Disability Studies in Education?

Disability Studies in Education interrogates the “myth of the normal child” and challenges the hegemony of “normal.” This discipline offers an alternative to the medical perspective about disability, in which an individual’s impairments are seen as solely responsible for the difficulties students experience learning with peers. It advocates models of education that better embrace natural human diversity—including those who are typically given disability labels in addition to racial minorities and LGBTQ2 students—without “othering” and marginalization.

Disability Studies is not the same discipline as special education, or any of the disciplines that prepare professionals to provide services to disabled individuals. It is a liberation movement discipline, akin to Critical Race Studies or Feminist Studies.

How does Disability Studies relate to the broader subject of equity in the classroom?

The literature and research of Disability Studies reveals systemic, cultural, and ideological mechanisms responsible for maintaining and recreating marginalization, and interrogates the factory-like education model that teaches to the average student. One of the goals of Disability Studies in Education is to foster classroom communities to become purposeful in supporting how children find identity and value in themselves. It presents another way of looking at “disability” as a matter of culture and society, rather than as an inherent characteristic in an individual.

Why do you think learning more about Disability Studies and the Disability Rights Movement should be required learning for all educators?

We live in a society of prejudices and privilege. Studying the history of the Disability Rights Movement can assist teachers in understanding how inclusion may be better achieved. Understanding of Disability Studies in Education helps educators to understand the roots of the school inclusion movement, clarify its true aims, and feel more confident about how they can work to address persistent problems with equity and inclusion in their own schools and classrooms, as well as in law and policy.

What do you hope students take away from this course?

I find that many teachers and other educators are frustrated with their efforts at inclusion. On one hand they value diversity and equity and they want to be advocates for students. On the other hand they are under tremendous pressure to yield acceptable academic performance data with increasing large and diverse classes. For many educators, the literature of Disabilities Studies offers a shift in thinking and new ways to understand the challenge before us. The notion of becoming a change agent in education finds new clarity. I’ve found that educators concerned with equity and inclusion are pleasantly surprised to find a home in this field of study. Their discovery is what makes this course so much fun to teach.


Online Course: Dis/ability Studies: Confronting Ableism, Stigma and Privilege in Education, October 12-November 15, 2020

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