A Minor That Spurred a Major Movement

By Chris Eckstine '14

For some college students, taking on a minor is required. Others simply want to use a minor to help them find their career sweet spot. 

But the students enrolled in the disability studies program at Shippensburg University aren’t just taking a minor—they’re part of a movement.

“The minor was always conceived as being very interdisciplinary, and not from a biomedical model, but from a social-cultural model of thinking about how do societies think about disability, what do they define as disability, how does that change across time and place, what kinds of policies are created and what are the implications of those for the real lives of people with disabilities,” said Dr. Allison Carey, sociology professor and disability studies minor director.

The program, now celebrating five years, started with one course.

“There was no way for students to get that specialty across the university or even to recognize it. So the project started with just an honors interdisciplinary class,” Carey said.

The 18-credit minor is now one of the biggest on campus, and it grew quickly.

“We started really working on bringing in speakers to raise awareness around disability and as a path for student careers, but also the campus philosophy that this was part of multiculturalism, that this was part of diversity, and then we started working on the minor,” she said.

Before the program sheet was drawn up, the push for inclusiveness on campus already was in motion. From an Introduction to Exceptionalities class prior to the minor’s creation about seven years ago, the award-winning student group, People Involved Equally (PIE), was born. Students have since created the Disability Awareness Club, which won an award last year for enhancing diversity.

During weekly PIE meetings, adults with developmental disabilities come onto campus and participate in various activities.

“It gives me a different view of people, especially with people with disabilities,” said Tori Bender, PIE’s vice president. “I have made friendships I probably would have never made and met people I probably would have never met if I didn’t just take time to open my eyes and just learn.”

Bender, a social work major and disability studies minor, also is a job coach for high school students with disabilities. The junior credits PIE with sparking her interest in taking Introduction to Disability Studies in the first place.

“It honestly changed the way I thought about everything.”

Bender is just one of many success stories within the minor. Students with majors in all three of Ship’s colleges are taking on disability studies and getting involved with groups like PIE. Faculty created a Disability Studies Steering Committee to incorporate related curriculum in many departments, a movement Carey insists can only benefit from more growth. 

That integration allowed Holly Harrar ’16 to zero in on her career aspirations and pursue her passions at the same time. For her, the topic of disability always has been personal.

“(My cousin) was the same age as me and battled juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her fingers and joints were so inflamed there were days she could barely move. Those were on days where her condition was the worst. On others, she attended preschool with me, played for hours in the yard, and had a laugh that could turn someone’s day around. In October 2005, she passed away from complications with a new medication. From that point on, I found ways to provide kids just like Courtney with opportunities to thrive. It’s also why I decided to become a disability studies minor,” Harrar said.

A communication/journalism major, Harrar didn’t think twice about declaring a minor in disability studies when the time came. Her growing knowledge of disability studies and her involvement with SUTV formed the two-pronged approach to combining her communication capabilities and her desire to tell the world about the disability community.

“Once enrolled in a few courses, my curiosity began to grow. I started asking questions about my life as a typical college student and if someone with a disability, who otherwise is just like me, can go to college. I was naive to the fact that they can and they have been across the country for years. Why didn’t I know about it? Immediately, I wanted to share this with my professors, peers, and as much of Shippensburg University that I could. So I did some research and decided the best way I could do this is by finding a college or university with a program for students with disabilities and ask if I could bring my camera and document how they run their program,” she said.

George Mason University allowed Harrar to do her project. The story aired on SUTV and later earned an Emmy®. “The biggest reward came from the disability studies professors who gave me the inspiration, knowledge, and guidance to spread the message of opportunity for people with disabilities. I am forever grateful,” she said.

Harrar is now a reporter for Blue Ridge Communications TV-11, covering northern Lancaster County, where she always looks for ways to give viewers a better idea of the disability community.

Prior to landing that job, she had the opportunity to work as a one-on-one aide with a high school student with a physical disability that limited his mobility.

“Although he could do everything for himself, except get around the school the same as everyone else, he was a fully-functioning high school sophomore but sat alone at lunch. After my first day working with him, I decided it would be the last time I would let him eat lunch alone. I sat with him, talked about sports, his pets, and how annoying last night’s homework was. Sometimes, a simple conversation is all it takes to realize someone with a disability isn’t all that different from you.”

That realization is a point students in the minor and groups like PIE and the Disability Awareness Club hope everyone can understand. Students in these groups interact with people with disabilities, something they might not have done before. That’s why events like inclusive basketball—a no labels, no hierarchy, no judgement event—give students and participants a chance to simply be united.

“It’s easy to stay away when you’re not forcing yourself to be involved, but once you are, you’re like, this is fun. It’s not intimidating; it’s not scary,” Bender said.

Students like Harrar and Bender may not have found themselves in a position to better understand disability had they not come to Ship.

“There aren’t that many disability studies programs yet, so we’re very cutting edge in that regard,” said Carey, who was vice president of the Society for Disability Studies and chair of the disability section of the American Sociological Association.

Although the program is only five years old, other schools have taken notice of Ship’s practices. Carey said both the University of South Florida and Millersville University have reached out to her about the minor’s introductory course, which involves a student panel where some students talk publicly about their disability experiences for the first time.

“We are one of the few programs that has taken the liberal arts basis of disability studies really seriously and made it across all three colleges. And we have great faculty,” Carey said.

“For example, Dr. Marita Flagler has worked on writing disability law in Albania, considering how the Americans with Disabilities Act might work in a country like Albania.”

Carey, her colleagues, and eager students have furthered the discussion on disabilities over the past five years and will continue to do so in the future.

At Ship, the disability studies program has proven that higher education is not limited to the opening of one’s mind, but can involve the opening of one’s heart.

“The disability studies minor taught me about patience in that no two people are the same, nor are two people with disabilities the same. I was able to learn new ways to interact with people with disabilities everywhere I went. This ultimately changed my day-to-day interactions with all people for the better,” Harrar said.

The program, once an aspiration that began as a lone class, has blossomed into a continuous conversation. It has been integral in students, faculty, and staff alike, taking a hard look at accessibility on campus. Their work has resulted in tangible changes, such as the addition of ramps and an increase in accessibility-related signage.

“The buildings and grounds folks took our suggestions so seriously. Shippensburg met the requirements of the ADA, but the requirements of the ADA don’t necessarily create an inclusive, welcoming campus,” Carey said.

Accessibility continues to be a focal point because of classwork in the minor. Students have taken on related capstone projects and created surveys to report the findings back to the university, resulting in policy change in the Office of Disability Services. The program is designed so that students in any field of study can connect disability with their major.

“If you’re in business, you can think about human resources and disability or disability as a market. If you’re in criminal justice, the majority of people in the criminal justice system, adults and juveniles, have some kind of disability label. If you’re in education, certainly disability is going to be relevant. In exercise science, you’re dealing with physicality. Whatever specialty you’re in, disability will likely be very relevant for you,” Carey said.

While great work has been completed over the past five years, the remaining work is not lost on the faculty and students. That mindset will continue the push to meet the demand for sign language on campus. It will continue the conversation about building a program for students with intellectual disabilities to attend higher education. The pioneers of the program continually look to expand it, both internally and externally.

“It gives students a valued skillset that’s a little different than what other students are getting, but also, students often want a sense that they’re improving the world,” Carey said. “And I think disability studies helps give them that sense that they’re participating in something, that the culture is changing. It’s improving in this aspect and they can be a part of that because there’s still so much work to be done. There’s still so much stigma and exclusion. So, to be kind of on the front end of that, I think students find that exciting.” 

Chris Eckstine ’14 is SU’s digital content producer.