Disability Studies as an academic discipline

Disability Studies (DS) is an academic discipline that examines the meaning, nature, and consequences of disability as a complex social phenomenon. Disability Studies assumes that the terms used - such as 'impairment', 'handicap', 'disability' - are social constructs whose meanings are subject to changes in time, place and context.

Initially the field focused on the division between impairment and disability. Impairment was interpreted as a functional limitation of an individual's mind or body, while disability was considered a social construction based on political, social, legal or physical barriers that prevented full inclusion of people with impairments. This premise was the basis of two distinct models of understanding disability: the social model and the medical model of disability. In 1999 the social model was universally accepted as the model preferred by the field. However, in recent years, the division between the social and medical model has been challenged. The social model of disability has been expanded to take chronic illness into account and to encompass the broader work of the medical humanities. Additionally there has been an increased focus on interdisciplinary research (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_studies).

Disability Studies as an academic and research field started in the United States and the United Kingdom, but is now spreading across the world. Nowadays it is possible to pursue degrees in Disability Studies at universities in several countries, although the Netherlands is not yet one of them. The Dutch foundation Disability Studies in the Netherlands (DSiN) aims to fill this gap.

Disability Studies courses include work in disability history, theory, legislation, policy, ethics and the arts.  An important focus is on the the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities. Disability rights as part of human rights is another. Disability Studies considers limitations as a part of human life in all its diversity. One of its main goals is to empower people with disabilities, and so disabled people are naturally involved in all projects and roles. Improving the quality of life of people with a disability and their families is another important goal.

Contributions are also made to the field by people without an impairment, disability or chronic illness. Scientists, medical and other professionals, activists and artists, disabled or not, work closely together.

Disability Studies in the Netherlands is characterised by:

  • A contextual or hybrid model of disability;
  • A cross-disability focus;
  • Working in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary ways;
  • Active involvement of disabled people, their organisations and their social networks.