By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPC, NCC
If not for happening upon a scholarly journal in 1989, Dr. Jim Ferris today likely wouldn't be heading the disability studies department at the University of Toledo.
In a telephone interview, Ferris said, “I was looking for another journal when I found the Journal of Social Issues, which had a special issue on disability studies. It was a transforming experience reading it because I suddenly realized all the little social things that had been going on around me my entire life had really been happening, even though my parents had always said, 'They really aren't staring at you or treating you (a certain way).' Reading that journal helped me (validate) my experience, and also that disability studies was a field worthy of study.”
Next spring, pending state approval, the University of Toledo will become the first U.S. college to offer a non-online undergraduate degree in disability studies. The U.S. has about 35 graduate-level programs in disability studies.
Ferris, now in his late 50s, grew up with proximal femoral focal deficiency, which led to about a dozen leg surgeries before he reached age 16. It severely affected his ability to walk, and today he wears a leg brace and walks with a limp. Also, his brother was born with Down syndrome.
As for disability studies, he said, “In a way, (the field of) disability studies grew as a response to things like kids being taunted in schools, which is just one instance of a culture-wide attitude toward people with disabilities that makes it acceptable today to treat people with disabilities as lesser.”
Ferris said the social environment had improved for people with disabilities over the last 30 years, but much work remained. He particularly panned the medical model of diagnosing, which tends to encourage society to view a person's diagnosis rather than their being a human being first.
The medical diagnosing of disability also tends to pit groups of people with disabilities against each other, he said, such as when one group gets a government benefit and another doesn't. It also pits people with disabilities against people without any disabilities, which can lead to resentment and social discrimination.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 finally came about, said Ferris, when “disability advocates across the different diagnostic categories began realizing they had more in common than not, and could fight towards a common cause leading to societal change.”
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