Making Disability Studies Accessible

photo of Ari Ne'eman
by Ari Ne’eman

Last week, Inside Higher Ed carried an intriguing piece from University of Maryland graduate student and New Inquiry editor Nathan Jurgenson. The article – Making Our Ideas More Accessible – made the case for academics to make their work available to the public through open access publications and writing suited for consumption outside the frequently cloistered world of the academy. Jurgenson’s writing was very timely for me; lately, I have found myself thinking more and more that the world of Disability Studies has grave need of this kind of advice.

The emergence of Disability Studies as an academic field was and is a development with tremendous potential. In much the same way that women’s studies, ethnic studies and other similar fields had brought intellectual rigor and analysis to understanding and fighting the experiences of oppression that so many communities continue to face, the representation of disability in the academy represents a huge step forward. There are many Disability Studies scholars whose work is fulfilling this promise, bringing to bear crucial analysis and social critique in a way that is both relevant and important. Yet, too often the revolutionary character of the disability rights movement is lost within the constrictive realm of academia.

Last year, I found myself on a plane traveling across the Pacific with nothing to read but half a dozen back issues of a prominent Disability Studies journal which shall go unnamed. Leafing through the pages, I was struck by how frequently the authors used inaccessible language to talk about the need to expand accessibility. For a field committed to the ideas of full inclusion and breaking down barriers to participation, Disability Studies academics often struggle to practice what they preach. No one is seriously proposing that we set a formal ceiling for how high peer-reviewed journal articles can score on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, but surely we can get over the tendency to stretch a few sentences worth of ideas over a dozen paragraphs?

Some of this is a holdover from the era in which disability was nothing more than a concept in the medical literature. Though we have asserted disability’s existence as a social and political idea that belongs to the people, we still tend to think every utterance about it requires a carefully formatted academic citation. Even within Disability Studies academia, disability has not yet fully emerged from its history as a construct belonging to the worlds of medicine and public health rather than that of politics and culture. We’re still tied to the idea that for theoretical innovations to “count”, they must be published in a peer-reviewed journal. We preach radical ideas centered around a social and political understandings of disability while using a medium of discussion designed for medical and research elites. In short, our roots are showing.

It isn’t the field’s fault, entirely. The tenure-track requires what the tenure-track requires; I certainly do not wish to take away the basis by which our friends in academia are able to earn a living. Still, there are practical consequences to limiting such important dialogues to such a small audience. For one thing, Disability Studies (like many academic fields) does an extraordinarily poor job of communicating its ideas to the general public, relegating the impact of discussions relevant in countless lives to the privileged few capable of accessing and comprehending the medium they are being debated within. When faced with educators, policymakers or just plain citizens with regressive ideas about disability, a common response seen from those steeped in academic discourse is to assume that such individuals are expressing thoughts from a different era. Of course, this is true – reactionary ideas about disability originate far in the past. Yet, we are deluding ourselves if we think that such concepts are not entrenched today in ways that no journal article could hope to dislodge.

Perhaps more importantly, jargon-heavy texts “crowd out” more important conversations that we could be having as a community. There are only so many times we can repeat that we live in an ableist world and leave it at that. We need more than just the ability to deconstruct examples of how the world hates us – we need an ability to do something about it. We are twenty-two years after the ADA – a sizable community now exists that needs no explanation of the problems with Jerry Lewis and Rain Man. For this growing group, the need is not for a path that will help explain oppression: it is for one that will help overthrow it. That community is very much in the minority today, but changing that will require work in mediums geared towards our own community and the general public, not the academy. Much as I personally enjoy the pages of DSQ, we need a resurrected Ragged Edge, not another Disability Studies Quarterly.

Just as importantly, there are better uses for the Disability Studies real estate: the work being done documenting the history of people with disabilities as a group is of extraordinary importance, and a more robust dialogue on the tactics and strategy of the movement that has brought us the progress we have achieved to date (and upon which we must depend for future such innovations) would be a valuable addition to it. Disability rights activists talk in very different ways and about very different things than the professors and lecturers that teach about the work they’ve done. Perhaps further discussion might reveal this as a perfectly necessary difference in emphasis – but until the academy learns to talk in terms of interest to the advocacy community that brought it into existence, we’ll never know for sure.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer the following practical recommendations for the future of how the disability rights movement can do a better job integrating theory and activism:

  • Expand our audience: The systematic oppression facing people with disabilities in our society is rarely discussed outside of disability rights circles. Part of the reason for that is the very systems of power that drive the aforementioned oppression. Still, the truth is that we also don’t do a very good job publishing writing that’s geared towards the general public. The pages of magazines like DissentThe Nation, The New Republic, Democracy and others abound with writing about both the policy and cultural challenges facing all manner of oppressed groups, but it is comparably rare that disability gets mentioned in such locales. Furthermore, ever since the closure of disability press mainstays like Ragged Edge and Mouth Magazine, disability activists have lacked a home within our community for high quality, non-academic writing on our issues. The blogosphere has helped filled the gap, but more is still needed. We have to start publishing disability rights articles in non-disability publications, so we can reach audiences unfamiliar with our ideas. Additionally, a strong and sustainable disability press is still needed to give our community a place for conversations like this one and help provide a home to a new generation of disabled writers.
  • Promote the academic as an activist: Universities have long been great incubators of social change. Some of this is because of the youthful idealism (and free time) of college students, but change agents on the faculty are also exceedingly valuable. Whether it’s working to turn a campus disability support services office into more than a litigation avoidance operation or working to make sure the history (and present) of segregation, eugenics and legalized violence against people with disabilities is taught in the classroom, academics concerned with disability can and frequently do engage in work that has real and immediate practical impact. The tactics, impact and importance of such efforts should be a topic of conversation and publication in Disability Studies academia.
  • Build Disability Studies as the think tank of the movement: Some of most interesting and important practical advocacy goals of a wide number of movements have come from the pens of academics with a strong grounding in the practical exigencies of the policy debates they study. A colleague of mine, Elizabeth Grace, has referred to this as “the think tank part of the movement” with regards to the impact such thinking can have on the disability world. We see plenty of examples of this playing out in the nation’s broader policy debates. Before the “public option” became ground zero in the legislative controversies surrounding President Obama’s health reform legislation, it was a proposal from Yale University Professor Jacob Hacker. Before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was incorporated within the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, it was the basis of a groundbreaking journal article by now MA Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren in the pages of Democracy. Whatever you may think of it, the ideas behind the 1996 welfare reform legislation negotiated by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were developed in the pages of The Public Interest, a public policy journal founded by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol. Ideas matter. To quote the words of John Maynard Keynes, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Ideas can influence policy in the disability rights world as well, and Disability Studies can and should play a part in incubating the next great advocacy priorities of our civil rights movement.
  • Build a Bridge between the Humanities and the Social Sciences: The work of scholars of disability in the humanities is very important in articulating the ways in which ableism and oppression pervade our society. Equally valuable are the methodological tools the social sciences provide us to communicate these problems to policymakers and assess the relative merits of varying strategies to solve them. Today, resources like the Human Services Research Institute’s National Core Indicators project and the Institute for Community Inclusion’s make high quality data on disability employment, social inclusion, rights protection and similar topics available to anyone with an interest. The people writing about our ableist culture benefit from being able to supplement their work with empirical research showing the results of the systematic devaluation of people with disabilities. Similarly, those researching the poverty, social exclusion and segregation faced by people with disabilities need to understand and expound upon the underlying social and cultural root causes of the issues they are observing. Let’s encourage these two strains of disability studies to deepen their relationship, the better to put forward a common social and political agenda for the disability community.


  • Make better use of new media: The emergence of online publishing has opened up new possibilities for the use of diverse means of communicating information. Podcasts, videos, infographics and other forms of new media mean that writing is now one means among many through which persuasion and education can occur. While it is important that we not abandon the uniquely deliberative nature of high quality writing, these new methods of communication allow us to reach larger audiences. Furthermore, core to the disability rights and neurodiversity analyses of learning is the idea that different people learn best through different mechanisms. Recent tools in educational pedagogy, such as Universal Design for Learning, take advantage of this in the classroom. Research and publication could easily do the same. A small but growing group of scholars in and outside of disability studies have made these arguments for years now – people like former MLA President Sidonie Smith and ASAN’s own Melanie Yergeau provide good examples for the field to follow.

I offer these comments as a friend and supporter of Disability Studies. I believe its emergence has been of exceptional value to people with disabilities and our allies, and continue to advocate for its expansion to more colleges and universities. It is my hope that this blog post can serve as the first volley in a larger conversation as to how the field can be more accessible to the community it studies and serves. With luck, this can help set the stage for the various parts of the disability rights movement can have a more meaningful and collaborative relationship. To those of us in the disability community, accessibility is not simply an aesthetic trait or even a functional asset – it is a civil right. If we take that principle and use it to enhance the relationship between the activist and academic strains of the disability rights movement, our community and our movement can take a big step forward.