Faculty envision future of disability studies at Yale
Yale faculty reflected on the present state and future of disability studies at Yale.
Courtesy of Dylan Davidson (left), Courtesy of Ximena Lopez Carillo (right)
With disability becoming increasingly prevalent in conversations on intersectionality, Yale’s instructional faculty plan to use disability as a pedagogical lens through which to explore literature, public health, history, religion and technology.
Disability studies — an academic field which applies disabled identities as a framework for scientific and cultural understanding — has recently garnered increased academic attention, including at Yale. Although there are several courses relevant to disability studies offered across the University there is no official major or certificate program dedicated to disability studies.
“I think [disability] is an important part of how we think of difference and intersectionality, and also just practically, if we’re talking about higher education, it needs to be something we consider,” said anthropology professor Elizabeth Berk.
Berk’s MMES 243 seminar — Health, Medicine, and Politics in the Middle East — is one of several classes offered this semester that explores the intersectional nature of disability studies.
Beyond Yale, a small number of peer institutions have already moved to develop disability studies curricula. Last semester, for instance, the College of General Studies at the University of Pittsburgh introduced a new 18-credit certificate program for Disability Studies. More recently, Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia added a Disability Studies concentration to its course of studies last month, which includes five required courses and a capstone project.
Yale’s Committee on Majors, composed of faculty and student representatives, conducts yearly reviews of existing majors and considers proposals for new majors. Christian Schlieker, the committee’s chair, wrote in an email to the News last week that disability studies has not yet been proposed as a major. However, Professor Schlieker remarked that all proposals — which must originate from faculty — are welcome.
Through interviews with instructional faculty, the News explored five current course offerings across a wide range of academic fields that highlight intersectional scholarship relevant to the field of disability studies.
Disability in writing
Doctoral candidate Dylan Davidson ’25 instructs an introductory writing seminar called Disability and Technology, which explores the complex relationship between human ability and technological innovation. Although Disability and Technology has not been offered before, Davidson taught another introductory ENGL 114 seminar last semester — Brains — in which students analyzed cultural perceptions and depictions of the brain. In an interview with the News, Davidson described the positive student response to Brains as “gratifying.”
With respect to these two courses, Davidson discussed the role of disability studies as a crucial lens through which to understand identity and culture. Despite the fact that the current course is a writing seminar, many of the students are neuroscience or cognitive science majors. According to Davidson, these students acknowledged the value of studying such fields through frameworks of disabled identities.
“When you come into the classroom and you’re given an opportunity to think critically about what your needs are, I think that, ideally, it [is] a moment of awakening for people,” Davidson said. “They realize that we’re always traveling through the world and negotiating our impairments or disabilities, whether they’re labeled that way or not.”
Disability in public health
Another course that has made its debut this semester is MMES 243: Health, Medicine, and Politics in the Middle East, taught by Berk. MMES 243 explores public health issues in the Middle East and in North Africa. As a part of the curriculum, students study the medicalization of disability in the region.
Berk hopes the course will be accessible to students without anthropology backgrounds or knowledge of the Middle East. Like Davidson’s seminar on Disability and Technology, Berk’s class consists of students from a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, public health and the history of science, biomedicine and neuroscience.
“I think ability is part of that whole intersectional web of what makes us who we are and what we contend with,” Berk said.
Disability in history
Another course offering that reflects the intersectionality of disability is the Davenport College Seminar CSDC 380: Step Right Up: The History of the American Circus. Betsy Kellem ’01, lecturer in the college seminar program, circus historian and “scholar of the unusual,” leads students in the study of circus entertainment in the United States, often through the lens of disability.
For instance, Kellem’s students engage in challenging discussions on the role of physical difference in entertainment careers. The course also encourages students to explore the intersections of race, disability and history, and to understand how these identities play a role in present-day conversations. In an email to the News, Kellem stressed the value of highlighting disabled perspectives while studying events past and present.
“As a lecturer in the seminar program I am an outside instructor, and don’t have a deep understanding of how Yale currently deals with disability in the main,” Kellem wrote. “I will say, though, that universities can only benefit [from] a more integrated sense of disability and how it fits into just about every area of study.”
Disability in ethnicity, race and migration
Ximena Lopez Carrillo, lecturer in Latinx Studies by the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Department, instructs ER&M 332: Cultural and Racial History of Mental Health.
Lopez Carrillo began teaching the seminar while studying as a graduate student — this is now the second semester that the course has been taught at Yale. Last year, the course enrolled around 23 students; this year, Lopez Carrillo received approximately 72 enrollment requests.
Lopez Carrillo’s research on the history of psychology — specifically, the “history of mental healthcare surrounding Latino populations in the United States,” she said — is reflected throughout the course. In one portion of the course, students explore the medicalization of “otherness.”
Lopez Carrillo encourages students to critically examine how social anxieties and political debates influence the construction of psychiatric labels and diagnoses.
Although the course examines mental health through gendered and disabled lenses, its main focus is the complex relationship between medical histories, culture and race.
“Many of my students come from the psychology and medical fields.” Lopez Carillo said. “Something that they often say to me is that in their psychological or medical education, they do not talk about race at all. So they use this course to debate these issues, even if it’s outside of their disciplines.”
Disability in religion
Doctoral candidate Calli Micale ’23 instructs a course at the Yale Divinity School, REL 618: Disability and Religion.
Although Disability and Religion is a graduate course, it is also open for enrollment to students across the university, including undergraduates. Currently, about 15 Divinity School students are enrolled in the course, which is in its first semester. Through Disability and Religion, Micale encourages students to unpack nuanced intersections of race, gender and disability through religious texts.
In creating the course, Micale was inspired by the complex relationship between spiritual frameworks and disabled identities. For instance, students in Micale’s course are currently reading “A Bible View of Slavery,” a primary source defense of slavery written by an American bishop in the 19th century. The purpose of the assignment, Micale said, is to examine the historical cooperation between scientific medicine and Biblical interpretation to construct racial stereotypes.
“There’s been a lot of excitement … in part, I think because students are coming to the course with a personal and academic interest in disability,” Micale said. “Folks with religious or non-religious commitments [are] trying to figure out how to put personal concerns, social justice concerns, political concerns, and their own spiritual lives together … I think this course offers at least one framework for doing so.”
Disability at Yale
Presently, Yale provides resources for disabled and chronically-ill students across the university through Student Accessibility Services. In particular, students may submit accessibility accommodations to SAS through an online registration form. First year students seeking support in navigating disabled identities may also request a peer liaison.
Kim McKeown, the director of Student Accessibility Services at Yale, stated in an email to the News that “[d]isability is recognized and discussed as part of the diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging initiatives throughout the Yale community.”
“By studying disability and understanding the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities globally, we can identify the barriers and stigmas that must be addressed in our efforts to be inclusive,” McKeown wrote.
Yale University also has an Advisory Committee on Accessibility Resources, whose role it is to support the university in promoting accessibility for Yale students and staff.
Despite the courses which examine a variety of fields through the lens of disability, there is no official academic program dedicated to the study of disability at Yale.
Correction 2/9: The previous version of the article misstated the name of the current reading in Micale’s course.