Module 1: Introduction to Disability Studies

1.2 Introduction to Disability Studies

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Disability Studies is a complex discipline, animated by radical hope, a theoretical commitment to reflexivity and plurality, and its own fair share of internal debates.  This brief introduction will begin with a short history of how disability studies became an academic discipline with academic departments in Universities across the world. A conversation between the philosopher and the philosopher, activist, and artist , found through the YouTube link below, will be used to ground the rest of our introduction; a transcript of their conversation is also available (beneath the YouTube link).

History of Disability Studies

Disability studies emerged as an independent academic field in the 1980s. Disability had been previously studied in universities and hospitals for a long time but always from a clinical or sociological perspective that framed disability as deviance; disability was considered a problem in need of a solution ore repair. As a new area of analysis, rooted in activism, disability studies marked a departure from this way of thinking. As writes,

Scholars and researchers began to think of disability as a social construction and a set of cultural products, and of disabled people as a group historically oppressed but politically recognized under the logic of civil rights.
(Garland-Thomson, 2013)

The discipline flourished in the 1990s. The first disability studies program was developed in 1996 at Syracuse University ( and by the end of the decade, it had become a broadly recognized field of study in which aspiring academics could publish, conduct research, and teach through tenured positions. Garland-Thomson writes that once disability had been sufficiently theorized as a “constructed cultural category”—meaning, as a concept emerging from society, rather than a deficiency that exists in the body—scholars suddenly began to recognize disability in places it hadn’t before been seen, leading to decades of productive and inspired inquiry:

With the critical idea of disability as a pervasive and productive presence in the world and self in place and universities supporting disability studies, the field yielded complex interdisciplinary work that expanded toward areas such as law, performance, life writing, design, bioethics, and material culture. By the twenty-first century, finding disability everywhere was no longer a critical surprise.
(Garland-Thomson, 2013)

Examined Life – Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor

With this brief history of the field of disability studies in mind, please watch, listen to, or read the conversation between philosopher Judith Butler and philosopher, artist, and advocate Sunaura (Sunny) Taylor. As you watch this video, text boxes will appear with links to chapters in this module expanding on the concepts they discuss. These are also linked in the transcript. You can watch the video in full and use the navigation menu of this Pressbook to read each chapter, click the link on the bottom banner of this page, or navigate to each chapter by clicking the in-video links. The video and transcript are embedded at the end of each chapter for you to continue watching or reading if you prefer to interact with the video.


Click here to read the Examined Life video transcript


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Digital Methods for Disability Studies Copyright © 2022 by Esther Ignagni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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