New disability studies certificates bring fresh opportunities to ASU community

School of Social Transformation has established an undergraduate, graduate certificate in disability studies for fall 2020

Students travel along Palm Walk

Arizona State University's School of Social Transformation has established an undergraduate and a graduate certificate in disability studies that promotes a new understanding of contemporary culture, not only for the disabled, but for society as well. These programs will be accepting students for the fall 2020 semester.

These certificates provide a socially embedded, intersectional overview of this emerging discipline: its history, culture, politics, philosophy and key concepts; its impact on services and supports to people with dis/abilities; its importance in disability research; and its influence in the formation of public policies.

ASU Now spoke with ASU’s Annamaria Oliverio, lecturer at the School of Social Transformation, Beth Blue Swadener, School of Social Transformation professor, and Terri Hlava, School of Social Transformation faculty associate, to learn a little more about these new certificates coming to ASU in fall 2020.

Question: What inspired the creation of these certificates?

Oliverio: It was more a matter of serendipity for me. Since 2012, I’ve been working in the community as a music therapist with clients who have diverse abilities, yet consistently revealed the many barriers they confronted in their everyday lives, disabling them from reaching their full potential. Meanwhile, in the School of Social Transformation, Dr. Mary-Margaret Fonow and Dr. Beth Blue Swadener were in the process of elevating awareness and early planning for certificates by hosting workshops, symposia and building curricula surrounding disability issues. Knowing about my music therapy background, Dr. Fonow asked if I was interested in designing and teaching a new undergraduate class on disability as well as creating two new certificates in disability studies. In collaboration with Dr. Swadener, who has long worked in disability advocacy and inclusive education, we decided to conduct meetings that included students, faculty, activists and leaders from the disability community in order to build a robust program that would include not only academic objectives, but also represent the diverse-ability communities’ needs. Dr. Terri Hlava and her dogs, Copper and Shay, came to our meetings, further providing their knowledge, expertise and lived experience. From diverse backgrounds, we coalesced, inspired each other and collaborated.       

Q: How are these certificates different from other disability studies certificates or degrees?

Oliverio: Our certificates are designed with ASU’s motto in mind that is, “we define ourselves by who we include not exclude.” Elective class options are not only interdisciplinary, but also universitywide, so that students from other fields of interest can learn and apply a disability studies approach to their related career from business to humanities, music to health care, engineering to design. Because we began this process of building the certificates by conducting meetings with diverse community members, students and faculty, asking what they would like to see and learn about in the program, the curriculum includes and reflects a richly diverse and applied perspective. Maintaining associations with local community organizations is essential as students in the program can choose to conduct applied projects or individualized studies that expose them directly to advocacy opportunities and policy initiatives. The disability community is as diverse as each individual. Our intent is to cast as broad a net as possible to capture and continue building upon the range of this diversity.    

Q: What skills will students acquire?

Oliverio/Swadener: The undergraduate disability studies certificate program promotes a new understanding of contemporary culture not only for persons with diverse abilities but also for their communities and society. The insidious ways in which ableism is structured into society and culture both globally and locally is a major focus. Students will acquire skills in understanding the dynamics of ableism — pertaining to visible and invisible disabilities across many aspects of society. They will also gain skills in research methods, critical policy and media analysis, teaching, advocacy, activism and much more. When you consider the opportunities for choosing electives for the universitywide certificates, skills could include those from nearly any discipline (subject to approval).

The disability-studies perspective challenges social constructions of disability through the voices of diversely-abled cultures who are disabled by barriers that exist in society. Students are critically challenged to reject simplistic definitions of disability as a restrictive, functional impairment that requires “fixing” or “curing.” It examines media portrayals, cultural stereotypes, institutional abuse, violent histories, offensive public policies and school inclusion/exclusions through the lived experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities and their families in the community. 

The graduate disability studies certificate program is designed for students who want to further deepen their understanding of structural ableism and intersectional perspective on disability in society. Students pursuing this certificate will become knowledgeable, flexible professionals, change agents, researchers, educators and advocates by critically addressing diverse intersectional experiences; quality of life and justice issues; field-based applications; policy and disability rights movements; and research for ongoing learning and writing. This program emphasizes the creation of new knowledge and consequent practical implications. Students will enhance their advanced degrees with research skills, concepts, methodologies and theoretical perspectives that support much-needed, creative research that they can apply within their own fields.

Q: What career opportunities are available for students who decide to apply?

Oliverio: A disability studies certificate can benefit a number of diverse professions including, but certainly not limited to:

• Protection and advocacy, nonprofit agencies.
• Rehabilitation sciences (speech and hearing, kinesiology).
• Parent education, consulting and information centers.
• State and local disabilities agencies.
• Self-advocacy associations.
• Community and family support agencies.
• University or college offices for students, with disabilities and transition centers.
• Independent living centers.
• Senior research and training positions at university-affiliated programs, research and training centers, and private research and policy institutes.
• K-12 education.
• Human services.
• Social work.
• Health care.
• Assisted living centers.
• Gerontology institutes.

Q: Why is it important to have these types of certificates?

Hlava: The certificate program fills a niche for people who want a specific set of skills for their work, advocacy — including self-advocacy — or other interests that reflect intersectional perspectives linking dis/ability to race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other identities and experiences. While many ASU students are aware of civil rights and other social movements, fewer are aware of the rich history of the disability rights movement. Completed in only 15 credit hours, with many options for electives, students can acquire highly relevant knowledge and put it into practice quickly, making the experience affordable too.

Oliverio: Over the past eight years, students from different disciplines, as well as students within the School of Social Transformation, have expressed the desire to focus their work on the area of disability from a socially embedded, interdisciplinary approach in order to increase their marketability and desirability in the workplace including careers in government, law, advocacy, education, health and human welfare, social work and entrepreneurship.

Q: What benefits will the new certificates bring to the ASU community?

Swadener: Reflecting ASU’s mission to be inclusive, these certificate programs further enhance this goal and reflect national and international scholarship in this transdisciplinary field. The ASU community is very diverse; therefore, curriculum programs and degrees need to keep up with the academic and practical needs of our diverse university community. This includes both course offerings as well as pedagogical approaches. A theme drawn from earlier disability rights movements of “nothing about us without us” also pervades the program. The collaborative nature of these certificates across university campuses emulates the necessity for continued, sustainable, interdependent relationships fostered by individuals and organizations both from within and beyond the university environment.

Hlava: The certificates will bring students to the ASU community, and these students will be scholars who are interested in working with the largest minority in the world, the only minority that anyone can join at any time — through accident, injury, trauma, age, illness, poverty. This dynamic will enhance ASU’s diversity, and good comes from diversity on college campuses — good in terms of greater understanding and good in terms of lessening prejudice and increasing cooperation and collaboration.

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