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Disability Studies Course Helps CLAS Students Break Barriers, Build Bridges

Christa Bialka

For students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, some of the most critical learning happens beyond the textbook and classroom. Eunice Lee ’18 CLAS, an Education major, can testify to that. In Introduction to Disability Studies, every student in the class partners with a student in LEVEL, a Villanova group that serves the needs of students with disabilities. This partnership not only applies class theories, but also fosters friendships between Introduction to Disability Studies students and LEVEL peers.

“My relationship with my LEVEL peer truly affected my understanding of ableism and diversity,” Eunice says. “My peer has day-to-day obstacles that I never think twice about, such as travelling across campus. Once, his battery powered wheelchair died in the middle of campus. Until then, I never understood my own ability privilege. My LEVEL peer helped me have this realization.”

Ability privilege is the societal advantage a person has because of their abilities, according to Christa Bialka, EdD, professor of Education and Counseling, who teaches the class. She prompts students to question this privilege to better understand issues of intersectionality, diversity and discrimination that those with disabilities experience every day. Many environments still lack accessibility and equal opportunity for people with disabilities—this type of discrimination is ableism. With both experiential learning and theory application, Introduction to Disability Studies impels students to acknowledge their ability privilege and utilize it to act as allies and advocates for those with disabilities.

As part of the core curriculum offerings, Introduction to Disability Studies is open to students from all disciplines. While Eunice is majoring in Education, her classmate Adam Aloi ’20 CLAS is majoring in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. Adam plans to pursue a career in counseling and has found the class complements his goals.

“With a neuroscience foundation, I am afforded the opportunity to learn the biological and neurochemical basis for disorders. In Intro to Disability Studies, we discuss the social implications and impacts of disorders” Adam says. “I have gained a well-rounded understanding of the social, political, cultural and academic implications associated with disabilities that will undoubtedly allow me to better serve my future clients.”

Ellen Lyman ’18 CLAS shares Adam’s sentiment. Ellen is majoring in Communication and plans to pursue a career in corporate communications, human resources or public relations. Her success in this field will be heavily reliant on her ability to build relationships, she says.

“This class has given me a better understanding of the appropriate behaviors and communication techniques to employ while to working with disabled colleagues throughout my career.”

It’s clear that Introduction to Disability Studies can prepare students across all disciplines and majors with an invaluable education on ableism, but Ellen sees its value beyond her profession.

“While most of the classes we take in school make us more knowledgeable for our future careers, this one makes us more knowledgeable for life,” she says. 

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