Disability Course Cluster Established

The Disability Studies Minor Working Group collaborated with three academic departments this semester to establish Georgetown’s first Disability Studies Course Cluster, a program that engages three classes in monthly lectures and interactive workshops with leading scholars in the field.

According to English professor Libbie Rifkin, who is a member of the working group, the cluster marks an initial step in advancing the creation of a disability studies minor at Georgetown,

“The clusters are sort of a first step potentially toward a minor,” Rifkin said. Students from three courses in the philosophy, English and theology departments are required to attend the lectures and workshops, which are also open to all students. The cluster includes “Bioethics and the Abnormal Body” in the philosophy department, “Introduction to Disability Studies” in the English department and “Religion and Disability Studies” in the theology department.

The second lecture, which took place Wednesday, featured a discussion on the framing of transgender identity as a disability in contemporary Japan from Karen Nakamura, a professor of anthropology and East Asian studies at Yale University.

In September, students participated in the first workshop, which was titled “Disability, Dignity and Ablution: Rituals of Care.” The program was led by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, an English professor at Emory University, and it examined ideas of dignity and disability in the context of religious and secular imagery.

The third lecture will focus on disability in the Holocaust, with details to be announced.

The DSMWG was formed two years ago by a group of faculty members from different academic departments to advocate for the establishment of a disability studies minor. In 2014, students also expressed their support for disabilities rights advocacy through a #BeingDisabledAtGeorgetown online campaign, which also pushed for the creation of a disability cultural center. The center project, which received support from the Georgetown University Student Association last year, has yet to receive university approval.

Rifkin, who initially conceptualized the program last year, said that it helps students become more aware of disability culture.

“Young people are coming up through a culture where they are surrounded in different kinds of ways by people with [disabilities],” Rifkin said. “We envision a very interdisciplinary program because disability touches everyone.”

The working group organized three events for this semester with the support of faculty in the three departments, as well as the Designing the Future(s) of the University Initiative, GUSA, the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Academic Resource Center and the LGBTQ Resource Center.

According to Rifkin, the cluster, which is currently in its pilot program, will continue with three new courses in the spring semester.

This semester, the three courses are taught by theology professor Julia Watts Belser, philosophy professor Rebecca Kukla and English professor Sara Schotland.

Kukla, who teaches “Bioethics and the Abnormal Body,” said that creating clusters of similar class subjects from different departments has been a university-wide goal for the past few years.

“Georgetown in general has been trying to get a program off the ground where undergraduate courses fall into thematically related clusters,” Kukla said. “In this case, the cluster is around disability theory and disability studies.”

Kukla said the professors in the cluster are granted extensive academic freedom, with the ability to guide their classes in a number of directions. The only standardized element of each class is preparation for the three guest lectures and workshops.

“We’re also coordinating between professors to make sure that the students are getting thematically linked perspectives on these topics,” Kukla said. “But it’s really the visiting speakers and workshops that are tying the three classes together.”

Belser, who teaches “Religion and Disability Studies,” said that the courses explore how the fields of history and anthropology shape disability culture, which is a difficult term to define.

[Disability studies] Belser said. “The workshop sessions are asking the students to think about how history and anthropology can transcend the narrow confines of the classroom. It invites us to think about the social consequences and social significance of disability.”

Belser said that as students become increasingly aware of disability issues, she hopes the classes and lectures can help them become more informed on largely misunderstood topics.

“Disability raises a lot of public questions at the beginning of life and at life’s end,” Belser said. “Right now, a lot of conversation is happening about right-to-die movements or assisted suicide.”

Belser said that the cluster will also allow students to draw connections between disability studies and their own experiences.

“Students are hungry for an opportunity to think about disability,” Belser said. “The thing about disability is that once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere.”

Disabilities rights activist and former GUSA Secretary of Disabilities Affairs Lydia Brown (COL ’15) said the cluster will bolster the establishment of a disability studies minor.

“Georgetown can use the course cluster pilot as a steppingstone toward establishing a full, formalized minor in disability studies,” Brown wrote in an email to The Hoya.

In the past few years, an increasing number of universities have created a disability studies program, including Syracuse University, the University of California Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Brown said that she hopes students in the cluster will be able to apply what they learn in class.

“Ideally, students taking disability studies courses and attending related events would develop more nuanced consciousness of ableism in society and perhaps be better positioned to incorporate a disability justice analysis into their other coursework, campus activities and future employment,” Brown wrote.

GUSA Undersecretary of Disability Affairs Dani Zamalin (NHS ’18) said that the cluster is instrumental in educating students about the significance of disability studies.

“It is no secret that disability studies and accessibility issues come with a certain amount of stigma,” Zamalin wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The first step in eliminating this is education.”

Emmy Buck (COL ’16), who is a student in Besler’s class, said that she enjoyed both the first workshop and her class, as it gave her a diverse understanding of disability from a variety of perspectives.

“[The cluster] has been absolutely amazing,” Buck said. “It’s taken both a literary and theological approach … in a way that allows you to get a greater understanding of what is currently going on within the disability community.”

Hoya Staff Writer Tom Garzillo contributed reporting.

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