OPINION: The 5Cs should have a department for disability studies

A black and white graphic that displays handicap, male and female symbols.
(Annika Larson • The Student Life)

When I searched for disability studies among the majors and minors offered at the Claremont Colleges, I found that none of the colleges had a disability studies department. This semester, I could only find one disability studies course (aptly named Disability Studies), listed under Pomona College’s gender and women’s studies department. 

As excited as I was to take the course, I didn’t register for it this semester. I needed to have fulfilled a prerequisite in gender studies before taking it, and I’m only a first-year.

Disability studies examines the history of disability, its role in society, ableism and different perspectives on disability. A small number of schools, such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign already list disability studies as a major or minor. The 5Cs should follow their example and offer disability studies as a fully-fledged academic discipline, rather than as a single course under Pomona’s gender and women’s studies program. 

My interest in disability studies comes from my personal experiences with neurodiversity. I was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism at 9 years old. I remember crying because I thought that meant I was weird. My parents did not think I was weird, but they also told me not to tell anyone about it except for my teachers and other people who also had ADHD. They feared that if I told my neurotypical friends, they would tell their parents, who would tell them not to spend time with me. During middle school, I’d hear, “You look like some ADD retarded kid” and “Your brother’s autistic? I’m sorry for your loss.” Although those comments were not directed toward me, I felt even more afraid to speak up. 

It wasn’t until high school, when my classmate said that she believed that disabled people should work in factory-like camps for the “more intelligent” people, that I decided to discuss my conditions openly in order to fight this prejudice. 

As I started talking about them publicly, I also became more invested in disability justice and the neurodiversity movement, which advocates for acceptance of neurological differences. I wanted to learn more about people like me. But as my interest grew, I noticed that much of social justice activism tended to overlook disability. 

I’ve had to explain to well-meaning activists why the language they use, such as calling Trump supporters “Trumptards,” is harmful to neurodiverse people. While LGBTQ+ identities are frequently treated as a matter of pride, as seen in LGBTQ+ pride events, the same cannot be said to the same extent for disability, in my experience. I found it far easier to come out as bisexual than as neurodivergent. Hearing more positive recognition of the LGBTQ+ community in my school made me feel more confident to come out. Anything similar regarding disability, in my experience, was and continues to be much rarer.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Over the summer, I attended Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders’ Rise Up!, an online LGBTQ+ youth summit, and discovered that many other disabled LGBTQ+ attendees shared my experience. Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, an LGBTQ+ and disability activist, told The Guardian that people tend to be far less accepting of her disabilities than of her queerness. 

I think the reason for this lack of acceptance is that ignorance breeds prejudice. Most people don’t know as much about disability as much as they know about other identities. I believe this absence of knowledge is due to society’s tendency to see disability as mostly a medical condition that should be cured. While this certainly fits some disabilities (although this still does not warrant discrimination), others are more context-dependent.

For example, studies suggest that in prehistoric times, ADHD could have helped people survive in a world that demanded people to constantly shift their attention and stay on their toes. Autism may not have posed as much of a problem in a society that didn’t yet have the technology to produce such loud sounds and flashing lights, causing sensory overload. 

We can see the potential benefits of autism in society today. “People with autism often have desirable qualities for employers, including high intelligence, careful attention to detail, intense commitment to high quality work and out of the box thinking,” writer Kristen Felicetti wrote in an article for Monster

Viewed in this way, disability doesn’t just become a medical condition but also a social identity. By examining the history of disability and the concept of normality, disability studies challenges mainstream perceptions of disability, bringing much-needed attention to disabled people’s struggles. Disability studies can teach others how to be more inclusive.

Exploring an issue in academia isn’t the be-all, end-all solution, but it’s a start. As a pre-med student, the likelihood that I will be working with patients with disabilities is almost certain. I should be able to learn more about the diverse needs of the disability community as part of my academic preparation for a career in medicine. Students with prospective careers in education deserve to learn how to best support their disabled students and help prevent the ableism I experienced at school. Therapists and social workers should know how to serve their disabled patients. Community organizers should know how to make their activism accessible. 

As Donnie Denome CG ’21 pointed out, disability support isn’t just about accommodations but also about recognizing disability as a cultural identity. Offering disability studies at the 5Cs is another step toward achieving this goal.

Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is a psychology major on the pre-med track and a music minor from Los Angeles, California. She is currently reading the book “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

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