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Disability studies is not a workshop

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On November 25, the Community Editorial Board (CEB) suggested that Duke’s liberal arts has “lost its way” with too many new minors being proposed. At the center of their critique, the authors question whether a proposed disability studies curriculum was really necessary. As members of Duke Disability Alliance and students helping to propose this minor, we welcome the opportunity to further discuss the need for this curriculum, and to address the CEB’s misperceptions.

First, the CEB article listed the disability studies and health humanities minor alongside other proposed minors such as Ethnic Studies, Urban Studies and Asian American Studies. In doing so, they suggest that identity-centered proposals are redundant. While viewing disability studies as solely about identity is a narrow understanding of the field, the experiences of the disabled minority are not insignificant. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, consisting of 26% of the U.S. and at least 15% of the global population. Injury and illness are universal human experiences. If you identify as nondisabled today, there is no guarantee that you will tomorrow--therefore these issues matter to everyone.

Second, the authors dismissively refer to a “minority of students” intending to pursue our minor. Leaving aside the fact that no major or minor can boast a “majority” of students, the support for our program is substantial. Our petition in support of the minor, issued less than a month ago, already has 675 signatures (and counting!), and our recent Speak Out event was met with wide attendance and overwhelming support from students, faculty, and alumni. Moreover, in a survey from February of 2020, out of ~200 respondents, over 150 students reported they would take exploratory classes in the proposed program, and 60 reported they would enroll. With those numbers, our nonexistent program is already looking pretty competitive.

Duke is behind the curve in not already offering something like what we are proposing. 46 colleges and universities have established disability studies programs, and 110 have health humanities. The numerous talented students and faculty that spoke at our recent Speak Out event demonstrate the far-reaching relevance and potential of a disability studies and health humanities education, from medicine to engineering to the arts. These collective perspectives cannot be overlooked. 

The CEB suggested a few alternatives to a minor. The first: “Duke could increase student awareness and understanding about the topic of disability via workshops, which could follow the model of the Sexual Assault Prevention training.” Leaving aside the inadequacy of those trainings, to imply that disability studies could be replaced with something as brief as a workshop reveals how little the authors understand about the field. This is the same as suggesting that we eliminate courses on feminism and gender studies because the training “covers it.” Disability studies is not about sensitivity and awareness training. The field enables critical thinking about the constructs of “normalcy” and “ability” that pervade all aspects of culture, society, and design, through rigorous interdisciplinary study. 

To their second suggestion, that students with these interests can take Writing 101 courses like Disability and Democracy, we counter that this is not enough. As each section is limited to a 15 student maximum and can be only taken once, space in these courses is highly limited, posing significant barriers for access. Where does this leave students who find out about or desire to explore disability studies after their freshman year? What about the students who had the privilege of taking this Writing 101 and want to continue their studies? 

This leads into the CEB’s third suggestion: interdepartmental majors or Program II’s. While a wonderful opportunity, Program II cannot take the place of an established program. Significantly, each Program II proposal must be unique and cannot be repeated by future students. Every approved program II in disability studies or health humanities narrows the field for future students. Interdepartmental majors are also not a good alternative for our proposal, which is for something so interdisciplinary it could not be reduced to any two departments. 

The CEB suggested the proposal for a Health Humanities and Disability Studies minor could be scaled down to a certificate program, a question that is likely to come up again as our proposal is considered. We, the students behind this minor, pushed for a minor rather than a certificate due to our feelings that the language of “certificate” does not translate well to contexts beyond Duke. A “certificate” on your transcript does not carry the same weight as a minor, and this may be why certificates often fail to retain students.

Continuing on the theme of certificates, the CEB article suggested that they often fail due to “lackluster effort from faculty.” On our team, not only are the faculty passionate about the program, they already have been exerting immense effort in mentoring students like us for years. For example, all of the current Program II students in disability and health humanities have been able to find advisors, mentors, and panelists as required by the degree program. These faculty are taking on this additional responsibility and workload out of their wholehearted dedication and desire to support these students, without any additional recognition or  compensation by Duke. If administration is concerned about faculty “effort,” maybe they should recognize and reward efforts that have immeasurable impacts on the community by providing all faculty with fair compensation and pathways to promotion.   

To sum up, we don’t want a transient addition to another curriculum, we don’t want to take just one class or “workshop.” We are not seeking to contribute to “credentialization culture.” We just want the same opportunity to pursue our desired fields of study as  any other students in any other discipline at Duke. Of the CEB, we ask for humility and the respect to learn about the experiences of others in other disciplines, before weighing in on questions of merit. The CEB’s article brought to light that now it is more pressing than ever for Duke to incorporate a disability studies and health humanities minor into the curriculum. Although some may see it as just another minor, it is a huge step towards combating ableism and paving a space for disability education and awareness on our campus. 

To show support for the Disability and Health Humanities minor, sign DDA’s petition: 


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