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Disability Culture, Pedagogy, and Theory

Facilitator: Caroline Weist

Questions of identity, inclusivity, and thriving have, in recent years, become increasingly and rightfully urgent on UR’s campus. Along with the long-overdue discussions and actions concerning student welfare, particularly that of students of color, momentum has also been building to address accessibility and belonging specifically for students with disabilities. The university took a significant step toward creating the “thriving and inclusive community” envisioned in the strategic plan by establishing a stand-alone Office of Disability Services (DS) in 2020 and hiring Emily Helft, a specialist in disability and accessibility in the educational setting, to serve as its dedicated director. Aligning with that office’s goal of educating the campus community and increasing accessibility, the committee formerly known as the Academic Disabilities Accommodation Committee revised its charge and its name in April 2021 to become the Disabilities Advocacy Committee (DAC). “The members of the Committee,” according to the revised charge, should “serve as advocates for students and faculty of the University’s disability‐community and provide support for faculty working to implement academic accommodations for students.” The latter of those charges resonates with the collaboration between the Office of Disability Services and the Faculty Hub, whose workshops for the Inclusive Pedagogy cohort and the Morning Blend series have given faculty members across the university opportunities to explore and implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a conceptual framework and set of practices designed to increase academic accessibility for all students. In terms of course content, the recent establishment of the Department of Health Studies points toward a wider potential interest in disability as a topic of inquiry both for faculty and students, as does the DEI component of the “Web of Inquiry” curriculum. Furthermore, the dialogue surrounding the curricular history of eugenics at UR as it relates to current course offerings also suggests that a more robust theorization of disability and its relationship to race and bioethics could be productive for our campus.


While those recent changes at UR demonstrate a growing impetus for understanding disability in pedagogical and medical contexts, they have not foregrounded an interest in disability theory and culture. Disability is, however, not (only) a medical term or diagnosis, but an aspect of identity that is “studied similarly to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality” and “in need of analysis across time, geographies, and cultures.” As the University of Michigan Initiative on Disability Studies notes, the field “views people with disabilities not as objects but as producers of knowledge whose common history has generated a wide variety of art, music, literature, and science infused with the experience of disability.” Two recent curricular additions - the course “Regarding Disability” (First-Year Seminar program) and American Sign Language (SPCS, Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and the Linguistics program) - indicate that UR has begun to explore that cultural knowledge. Accordingly, this FLC aims to build on existing momentum by facilitating faculty members’ engagement with the conceptual vocabulary necessary to understand disability culture and its corresponding forms of knowledge in ways that can inform both teaching and research.


Because “disability provides a critical framework that reorients the basic assumptions of various fields of
knowledge, from political science to architecture, from engineering to art history, from genetics to law, from
public policy to education, from biology to poetry, and so on,” the potential field of applicants for this FLC is
broad. Drawing on the network established by the Faculty Hub, the Office of DS, and the university-wide
DAC, recruitment for the FLC will reach across the university’s schools.


Given that disability studies and UDL are new areas for most faculty, the goals of this FLC are modest in scale, but substantial. They include:

  • faculty engagement with relevant modes of thought and areas of inquiry from disability studies that
    either complement existing or open new avenues of research
  • identification of areas where faculty can use their teaching and service to support the work of the DAC
    and the Office of DS to make the university more accessible to students with disabilities, both in terms
    of its curriculum and its built environment (Note: Should funds be obtained and public health circumstances allow,
    this outcome will be achieved in part by a visit to the campus of Gallaudet University.)
  • equipping faculty with tools to engage in productive discussion around the intersection of disability with other identity categories, such as race, gender, sexuality, and class, as they pertain to our campus and the wider Richmond community
Once the FLC has further augmented the foundation laid by the Office of DS and the Hub, we aim to work
together to convene an interdisciplinary symposium in AY 2022-23 that will further raise the profile of
disability’s role in DEI initiatives. It will combine workshops on UDL, roundtables with FLC participants and
other stakeholders in the campus community, and a public keynote by an established Disability Studies scholar.