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A Dream For Disability Studies: a Student Perspective

Editor's Note: April D'Aubin lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she is research analyst for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD).

Two years ago I enrolled in the Disability Studies program at the University of Manitoba (UofM). My dream for the future is that more universities will offer Disability Studies programs because Disability Studies provides another mechanism for the sharing of the knowledge being created by disability rights organizations, in addition to the transmission of knowledge from other sources. This dream is informed by my position as a part-time student and full-time worker for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), a national advocacy organization promoting equality rights.

In the 1990's the late Henry Enns and other consumers in Winnipeg began to lobby the University of Manitoba for a Disability Studies program. (Henry Enns was the first Executive Director of the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies {CCDS}.) Winnipeg-based advocates argued that a Disability Studies program would help to challenge existing University of Manitoba faculty, emerging scholars and new professionals to think about disability from more than the medical model perspective.

The social model of disability, and other models such as the human rights model, would be presented as an alternative to medical-model thinking about disability. Unlike the medical model, the social model of disability holds that factors in the environment, rather than impairment residing in the individual, prevent the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society.

The UofM Disability Studies program states that its objectives are as follows: To promote interdisciplinary work in Disability Studies; to provide graduate students with an opportunity to apply their undergraduate degrees and work experience to an interdisciplinary Master's degree program in Disability Studies; to meet the demand from students, staff and organizations for persons with disabilities for an interdisciplinary graduate program in Disability Studies; to facilitate and encourage the involvement of leaders in the disability community and at the University of Manitoba to be educators, researchers and decision makers; to enhance employment opportunities for persons with disabilities; to promote greater access to the university for persons with disabilities.

My two years in the University of Manitobas Disability Studies program has demonstrated to me how this type of program can build bridges between the disability advocacy community and the academic community. Two examples that stand out for me are the programs Summer Institutes on Disability and Information Technology and its course on End of Life Issues and Persons with Disabilities.

In 2004 and 2005, I participated in the programs Summer Institute on Information Technology (I.T.) and People with Disabilities. Both years the Institute brought together students who take the course for credit, disability community members, government officials, industry representatives and service providers. The Institute provided an opportunity for students from the fields of Mechanical Engineering, Occupational Therapy, Recreation and Disability Studies to participate in a dialogue with consumers, I.T. industry officials and government officials about how to prevent the development of new barriers in the I.T. field.

For example, at the 2005 Institute Kier Martin, Chairperson of CCDs Access to Technology Committee, described the I.T. issues that are brought to him by consumers who meet with him at the Independent Living Resource Centre in St. Johns, Newfoundland:I.T. products are rolled out in inaccessible formats and consumers have to wait-and pay--for accommodations; access features that are built in to products like Microsoft do not meet the needs of many consumers, to name a few issues."

One participant with a vision impairment working in the I.T. industry shared the frustrations presented by the inaccessible Blackberry product line. At the end of the Institute, a mechanical engineering student expressed the sentiment that the Institute had altered how he would approach his engineering assignments in the future. Accessibility had taken on a new meaning for him.

The 2005 Institute sponsored the participation of two Australians, Gerard Goggin http://www.gerardgoggin.net/ and Tim Noonan http://www.softspeak.com.au/atsum98.htm so that they could share the experiences of the Australian disability community with Information Technology. Following the Institute, Goggin and Noonan met with representatives of CCD to discuss issues of mutual concern.

To learn more about the Summer Institute, go to: http://www.dis-it.ca/

The 2005 End of Life Issues and People with Disabilities course was a unique learning experience because it was led by four instructors--Dr. Deborah Stienstra (Disability Studies), Dr. Zana Lutfyya (Education), Dr. Joe Kaufert (Anthropology/Sociology), and Dr. Harvey Chochinov (Medicine). The readings for this course ranged from personal reflection pieces by consumer Patrick Kellerman to CCD Latimer Watch to articles and consumer briefs to the Canadian Senate and other bodies, to articles from palliative care journals. The course is a component of a major research project on end of life issues and people with disabilities being conducted over five years.

Jim Derksen, a consumer and CCD Policy Advisor, is assisting this research project to look at policy issues relating to end of life decision-making by people with disabilities. Derksen, who has been a key spokesperson on the Latimer case and other euthanasia cases, also participated in some of the End of Life Issues and People with Disabilities classes, providing a consumer movement counter-balance to the academics perspectives. The Disability Studies course outline for 2005-06 has Derksen listed as the instructor for a course focusing on disability and politics. Disability Studies faculty are also participating in community events. In December 2004, the Allan Simpson Memorial Fund held a workshop to share information about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the issues that disability community believes need to be addressed by the museum. Dr. Nancy Hansen, a professor in the Disability Studies program, participated in the event and shared information about how people with disabilities were euthanized in Nazi Germany. In June 2004, Dr. Stienstra was the keynote speaker at Manitobas Access Awareness Awards Ceremony, coordinated by the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities.

While the Disability Studies program has been changing attitudes at the University of Manitoba, there still are hurdles to overcome. Not all faculties are convinced of the relevance of Disability Studies.

For example, one Arts Faculty history student was told by her advisor not to take the Disability Studies history course because disability history is not real history. Obviously, some historians have not been keeping up with their reading because the works of Paul Longmore (The New Disability History) and Hugh Gregory Gallagher (FDRs Splendid Deception) provide proof positive that disability history is real history.

In conclusion, my dream is that Disability Studies programs will proliferate across Canada and recruit more disability rights activists to come into the classroom to teach students from both the applied and non-applied fields about barriers and barrier removal processes--this is another way to advance social change.

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