UCLA creates first disability studies major at a California public university

New program launched thanks in part to overwhelming popularity of the campus’s existing minor

Alison Hewitt | 

Key takeaways

  • UCLA has launched a disability studies major, the first of its kind at a public university in California.
  • The major, created 16 years after the existing minor was formed, accepted its first students in fall 2023.
  • Two new faculty hires will expand the capacity of the program, which also includes several professors from the arts.

Thanks in part to the overwhelming popularity of UCLA’s 16-year-old disability studies minor, the campus has launched a new disability studies interdepartmental major — the first such major at any California public university.

The new major accepted its first students in fall quarter of 2023, and two new faculty hires will expand the capacity of the program from the existing minor, formed in 2007.

While many schools across the country offer applied programs focused on rehabilitation, diagnosis and services, they tend to view disability as a problem to be fixed or repaired. These programs often ignore the ways disability is generated and reinforced by society, as well as the positive role of disability culture in creating a more inclusive society, said choreography professor Victoria Marks. She is chair of the new major and faculty director of the Dancing Disability Lab with the department of world arts and cultures/dance within the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

“As an academic discipline, disability studies considers corporeal diversity, not as something to repair or fix, but as an intersectional identity that is constructed by how we shape access, how we build our cities and write our laws,” Marks said. “UCLA’s new major becomes one of only a handful of programs to examine disability as a historical, social, cultural and political experience, and to consider the way societies, cultures, institutions, spaces and mindsets produce disability systemically and socially.”

As an example, Marks pointed to curb cuts, the ramps at street corners and intersections. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress in 1990, ramps weren’t required, and curbs were barriers for anyone who couldn’t readily climb a step. The ADA-enforced curb cuts removed those obstacles not only for people who regularly or temporarily need wheelchairs or other mobility devices, but also for parents with strollers, shoppers with carts, bicyclists and more.

“Disability studies invites all of us to look at how society is constructed to create the identity of disability,” Marks said. “It challenges us to rethink ‘normal’ and make visible the implicit ableism that is naturalized for so many.”

In 1994, Syracuse University in New York became the first U.S. school to develop a disability studies program, and in 2003 UC Berkeley became the first UC to create a minor in the field, but majors remain rare.

“In the disability studies major, we consider who tells the stories about people with disabilities, what stories have been told about disability, and how the future can be imagined and constructed,” Marks said. “Ensuring access for people with disabilities is not only essential for folks with disabilities. Attending to our human diversity and the many ways we move through space, both built and digital, benefits everyone.”

Classes in the interdepartmental major, housed in Undergraduate Education Initiatives, include a new introductory course, “The Construction of (Dis)ability and Ableism in the U.S.,” and the popular course from the minor, “Perspectives on Disability.” Students will also choose from dozens of interdisciplinary options from art to science. They can study performance and disability with Marks or go to the Institute for Society and Genetics to take “Future of Humanity: Bioethics of Health and Disability.” They can sample courses including “Anthropology of Deviance and Abnormality,” “Health Issues for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: Myth or Model?” and “Enforcing Normalcy: Deaf and Disability Studies.”

“One of the many reasons we knew we were ready to create the major was that ‘Perspectives on Disability’ had been enrolled to capacity every quarter,” said Marks. Then came the pandemic and with it: long COVID; familiarity with what it meant to be immunocompromised; caring for elders and children without support; psychological fatigue; and mental health challenges. All of these contributed to greater understanding about access and an expanded awareness of disability identities, Marks said.

UCLA choreography professor Victoria Marks, chair of the disabilities studies major and faculty director of the Dancing Disability Lab.
“During the pandemic and in the return to in-person teaching, students formed a robust disabled students union, which advocated persuasively for access and resources,” Marks said. “Ties between disability and other marginalized identities were clear as we looked at access to health resources, education and transportation.”

The faculty of the new major includes several professors from the arts, which are often overlooked in disability studies programs. Among them are Lauren Lee McCarthy in Design Media Arts, who considers questions of accessibility; Raymond Knapp in Musicology, who teaches a course about disability in music and musical theater; Kathleen McHugh, who teaches a course on disability representation in film; and Helen Deutsch in Literature, who has reevaluated the writings of 18th-century poet Alexander Pope in light of his physical disability, believed to be tuberculosis of the spine.

The major’s two new faculty positions are split appointments, shared with other departments on campus and funded by the executive vice chancellor/provost. These hires will complement the existing research and teaching of disability studies across campus.

An internship requirement gives students the opportunity to work with a community organization providing services to people with disabilities, or with a government agency responsible for making policies related to disability. Students will use their academic experiences to consider ableism and paternalism, to understand how the organization constructs or frames disability, and to contribute to progressive thinking in their fieldwork.

The Disability Inclusion Labs, designed to encourage pedagogical and research experimentation, will expand thanks to a donation from Judith Smith (professor emerita and inaugural dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music) and funds from the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. With Smith’s gift, the disability studies program has created the “Legacy and Futures: Judith E. Heumann Community Partnership,” honoring the disability rights activist of the same name. The Heumann partnership has funding for three years and each year will connect a disability community activist with a faculty partner. The activist will receive $20,000 and the faculty partner will be awarded $10,000 for their work together. Each year, new pairs will collaborate on projects designed to advance disability visibility and justice, benefitting both UCLA and disability communities.

“UCLA’s new strategic plan identifies ‘inclusive excellence’ as one of its primary platforms. The new Disability Studies Interdepartmental Program, then, is a no-brainer,” Marks said. “It ensures that disability justice, culture and rights are central to the knowledge production of a world-class university.”

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