Opinion: AU’s Disability Studies certificate is a great start but not enough
The University needs to start doing more
There is little conversation about disability at American University. The only classes that engage with this subject are waitlisted because they fulfill the Habits of Mind requirements. There are still very few supplemental classes for students who are truly interested and affected by these issues.
On July 14, the College of Arts & Sciences announced that there would be 13 changes made to their programming, including many new opportunities for students to expand their knowledge. The University added a disability studies certificate — Disability, Health and Bodies — a monumental step in starting important conversations about disability and related topics. The certificate requires two American studies disability classes and six credits of approved electives. The certificate is available starting in the Fall 2021 semester.
While the certificate seems promising, there is little to no push for a department in disability studies. AU is ranked in first place for colleges with the most politically active students, according to the Princeton Review. We must bring our social justice activism to the forefront by including disabled voices.
Emma Jaromin, third-year anthropology major at AU, allies with the disabled community because she has familial experience with its activism.
“You can’t teach about something that is not represented in your own culture. It is great that we have staff and faculty that can not only run and start this, but support students who identify with the community,” Jaromin said. “But we definitely need advisors and people and experiences within the community itself in order to gain that education so you are not just tokenizing people who were already here.”
Katherine Greenstein, a CLEG major in their second year at AU, wrote in an email “I think disability is generally left out of academia, and when it is included, it's always abled people speaking over our community - especially when it comes to language like ‘special needs’ and ‘differently abled,’ both of which are super offensive.”
Offensive language continues and disability programs are sometimes run by abled people. As Greenstein puts it, “We need disabled people from all walks of life. Disabled professors, disabled students, disabled activists and administrators, we need people with intense care for this community.”
My vision for the University is to start a whole disability studies program. Students agree.
“It's really hard to find schools with programs like this, and having one at AU would be great representation and a great opportunity for me to study what I am passionate about and want to pursue,” Greenstein said. “I think if it is run by disabled people, it's a great opportunity to talk about disability in academics and gives us all a space to learn from people who know the most.”
I spoke to professor Tanja Aho, the instructor of AU’s two major classes about disability in the American studies department.
“I would like to see disability become less of an afterthought in DEI efforts — I think AU should hire a full-time staff member to work on creating disability culture at AU, which other peer institutions have already done,” Aho said. “We want to celebrate our disabled students, faculty and staff, create supportive environments for everyone's flourishing, and make space for disabled folks at AU to foster community amongst ourselves.”
Aho also identifies as neurodivergent and neuroqueer; I believe they would be a great asset to the disability studies program. We must uplift disabled voices of all kinds and Aho’s work in disability studies makes their classes exactly what we need more of.
Aho agrees and is already thinking about next steps: “I really hope that AU will follow its commitment to DEI and invest in hiring more faculty who can teach disability studies, especially at the intersections with critical race, ethnic and indigenous studies.”
Aho hopes more people will show interest in the program and support its expansions. A main focus should be finding ways to improve the certificate and potentially launching a whole program. According to Aho, this won’t be easy.
“The certificate currently does not have enough classes that are actually grounded in critical disability studies,” Aho said. “Since I am the only full-time faculty member teaching it, we need more of an investment from the University. Relying on adjunct labor to fill a lot of those electives is not a sustainable solution and does not provide students with the faculty relationships and mentors they deserve in the field.”
As a disabled student myself, I hope to see AU improve and plan to hold them accountable. Accountability starts with making the voices of disabled people heard, and the members of our community deserve to see an improvement in how we teach about disability. We need more faculty like Aho and new classes and funding to make the program successful. AU is not doing enough to make disabled voices heard, and the certificate is less than the bare minimum.
Darya Iranmaneshis a freshman in the School of Communication and School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.