Disability Studies at the New School

Disability Culture: a course by Nadina LaSpina

by Leslie Heller

The origins and the depths of the social construct of disability are just two of the issues explored in this course, developed and taught by long-time disability rights activist Nadina LaSpina. It is currently being taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

The course traces disability through the ages: the progression from disability as punishment or sign from the gods, to the charity model, then the medical and rehab models, and finally to independent living and disability rights movement.

The exploration of varied and thought-provoking literature (the great majority penned by people with disabilities), and the occasional film or live performance, highlight issues central to individuals and to our community as a whole.

How is self-concept affected by living with a disability? In what ways does growing up with a disability differ from becoming disabled as an adult? Has society's view of us really changed, and, if so, in what ways?

What are the consequences, both to the individual and to society, of the social construct of disability? What atrocities have been perpetrated on people with disabilities throughout history as a result of societal attitudes?

What unites us as a community? What divides us from each other? Is there really a disability culture? Are our values different than those of the non-disabled majority? And can our marginalized group and the non-disabled majority find common ground and understanding of each other?

In her course, Nadina LaSpina combines scholarly writings with autobiographical, biographical and creative works to encourage students to ponder and discuss these very important issues. In addition, the dialogue that develops in class between students with obvious disabilities, those whose disabilities are hidden, and those without disabilities, provide a rare opportunity to lay bare feelings, fears, misconceptions and prejudices that are seldom discussed openly between these often divided groups.

The exchange of ideas and values clarifies differences and similarities, providing a unique chance for the participants to begin to be aware of their often subconscious, deeply held convictions. With this awareness they can begin to evaluate these beliefs, and to consider alternatives.

The issues raised during the semester are frequently profound, occasionally horrifying, and sometimes funny. They reveal a collective history and a blossoming new culture.

From ABLE Newspaper, Vol 2 No 7, December 1996

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