Students advocate for official disability studies program
Across the University, students and staff are pushing for the creation of an official department and research center dedicated to the discipline of disability studies.
Tim Tai, Photography Editor
Undergraduate, graduate and professional students are advocating for the institution of an official disability studies department at Yale.
The Yale Disability Studies Network, a multidisciplinary student-led coalition that unites students, faculty and alumni through disability scholarship, has petitioned for the formalization of an interdepartmental center for the study and research of disability at Yale.
Throughout the months of April and May, four disability advocates — including an author and autism activist, a political anthropologist, a CNN journalist and a professor of architecture — will visit Yale’s campus to speak on issues relating to disability. The Yale Disability Studies Network hopes that this speaker series will call attention to the interdisciplinary character of disability scholarship, and also serve as a platform through which those interested in disability studies can engage more deeply with the field.
“I found it to be an unacceptable oversight, particularly for an institution like Yale, not to have a dedicated space that caters to the intellectual needs of scholars and practitioners working to benefit disabled individuals,” Yushi Zhang SPH ’23, co-leader of the Yale Disability Studies Network, told the News.
Zhang said that support for the proposed disability studies center became clear in conversations she had with community members involved with the Poorvu Center, DiversAbility at Yale, Student Accessibility Services and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office, as well as the Office of the Provost and its faculty and student affiliates.
However, she noted, the program will need the support of leading University faculty and administrators in order to move past planning stages.
Presently, the Yale Disability Studies Network’s leadership team consists of students from all across the University. According to Zhang, the graduate and undergraduate working groups will be led by history Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Boorstein GRD ’26 and disability peer liaison Alexis Sye ’25, respectively.
To gain further legitimacy, Zhang explained that the program will require official registration and internal funding. The next step in their advocacy efforts will be to collect signatures on a petition letter from supporters of an interdepartmental Center for Disability Studies.
Martine Cruz ’23 defined disability studies as the academic exploration of the experience of disabled persons. Historically, she said, scholarship has often medicalized certain aspects of the disabled experience instead of taking a holistic approach. Cruz affirmed the importance of the creation of a disability studies department as a way to begin facilitating a more tangible connection between the University and its disabled community.
Cruz previously served as a member of Disability Empowerment for Yale — an undergraduate advocacy group for disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students — for one year, before becoming the group’s communications director.
According to Cruz, she and Zhang connected through their shared interest in public health, and have worked together to coordinate action around Zhang’s Yale Disability Studies Network initiative.
As a student-led initiative, the Yale Disability Studies Network has introduced a number of efforts to gain attention and support from University administrators.
“Presently, Yale really does what is demanded by the Americans with Disabilities Act and that’s about it,” Cruz said. “It’s never been the initiative of the university to provide any support to students that would otherwise not be required by the law.”
Zhang’s first concept of the Yale Disability Studies Network was as an intra-university “cross-school student group,” she told the News. This vision was complicated when Zhang discovered that multi-school organizations were not eligible to receive activities funding from any single school.
Relying on individual faculty members, too, proved onerous.
Zhang explained that though a number of faculty members are individually invested in disability studies, “many of them did not have the bandwidth to establish a university-wide collaboration” without institutional support.
“I can’t do this alone,” she continued. “If we want this thing to exist, I will need a lot more people joining me and joining the many [disabilities studies] scholars and students at Yale.”
Anthropology professor Elizabeth Berk has thrown her support behind expanding disability studies at Yale, and Katie Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Public Health, expressed hope that the current movement would increase visibility and resources for disability studies scholarship.
Wang said that she thought the program could “encourage the conceptualization of the disabled lived experience as a form of human diversity, and raise awareness of disability inclusion as a social justice issue, both within the Yale community and beyond.”
Through her own experience as an educator, Berk said she has observed students’ experiences with disability, chronic illness and mental health challenges. To Berk, a dedicated disability studies center would not only expand academic and extracurricular opportunities relevant to the field, but also provide a space through which students can explore their own experiences.
Some students and faculty believe that University support for a disabilities studies program is, at best, overdue.
Cruz said that institutional recognition would be “the first step of Yale formally acknowledging that disabled students exist and that disabled people exist.”
Both Zhang and Berk affirmed that disability studies have recently gained an increasing amount of academic attention. Wesleyan’s “cluster” program cropped up in 2010 thanks to student advocacy, and Georgetown has offered minors and Masters and Ph.D programs. Certificates in the study for three decades.
However, Berk also highlighted the intrinsic value of disability studies beyond its “trendy” status as a field of study.
“One thing I think is incredibly important about disability studies overall is not just treating it as another axis, [like,] ‘okay, we’ve talked about gender, we’ve talked about race; now let’s add disability,’” stated Berk. “I think disability studies come out of the ways in which all of those are constructed together, and the different ways that disability has been constructed over time.”
However, Ivy League schools have lagged behind in offering organized disability studies programming: Princeton and Yale only have working groups, the University of Pennsylvania allows womens, gender and sexuality studies majors to “concentrate” in Health and Disability and Columbia University’s disability studies program is tucked away in its Department of English and Comparative Literature.
Members of Yale Disability Studies Network said they see the gap as an opportunity to be trailblazers of disability studies and to encourage wider recognition of the practice in academia.
The Yale Disability Studies Network’s next speaker event will take place on Tuesday, April 18, where Eric Reinhart — a Harvard-trained medical anthropologist and physician — will discuss abolitionist care.