Teaching Disability Studies: The tradition continues at Maryville University

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This past fall semester at Maryville University, adjunct professor Steve Foelsch taught 10 students “Rehab 105: Society and the Individual, Perspectives on Disability.” This course is one of six classes that was created by Starkloff Disability Institute in 2004 as part of a Disability Studies curriculum and taught by Foelsch, SDI’s Director of Education.

The purpose in creating a Disability Studies curriculum is to educate college students on the many subjects of disability from a Disability Rights perspective. SDI leaders know it is critical that these classes be created and taught by people with significant disabilities, using teaching materials written by people with disabilities.

What makes these classes unique is that they are not created or taught by medical or educational professionals, which has been traditionally been the norm. Often classes on disability taught by medical or educational professionals exclude the personal, lived disability experience; and perspectives and do not address specific political and economic reasons for the marginalization of people with disabilities.

In Foelsch’s class, one-third of the lectures throughout the semester were presented by individuals with a wide range of disabilities, giving students the opportunity to ask questions and, most importantly, interact.  With he himself having a significant disability and being at the helm of every class, this course provides students an immersive experience into the world of disability.

“Much in the same way one would expect a Women’s Studies course to be taught by a woman, or an African-American literature course to be taught by an African American, you can read all the textbooks you want, but that instructor is not going to bring real-life lived experiences and observations to the students unless he or she is of the same ilk as those being studied,” says Foelsch.

“One of the main goals of this programs is to also educate people with disabilities themselves about the subject of disability. Just because you have a disability, it doesn’t mean you know about the history, the subjects to be considered, and how to advocate for and utilize resources to live and work independently.”

Consider one of Foelsch’s most recent students, Marissa, who is a wheelchair user:

“I have learned so much about disabilities. I’ve learned more about self-advocacy for myself as well,” Marissa reveals. “I didn’t even get to write about all of the aspects that I had wanted to. I thought this class wasn’t going to help me because I already am a person with a disability, but actually I learned a lot.”

Students in Foelsch’s class have gone on to work in a myriad of professions. However, a majority are going on to work in psychology, counseling, and the medical professions that specifically deal with people with disabilities, like physical and occupational therapy. The majority of students in the Fall 2018 semester will go on to work in occupational therapy. Because of the instruction they’ve received from Foelsch, they will approach their work from a Disability Rights perspective.

Another student, Karlee, said, “During this class, I felt I was able to learn about specific topics that other teachers would have been touchy on, and we dug into them right away. With learning all of this, it is going to help me in the future with being an Occupational Therapist,” she happily reported.

Foelsch also frequently teaches Advocacy and Disability, The History of the Disability Rights Movement and Independent Living Philosophy.

“The running theme throughout all these classes is to teach students to construct and communicate persuasive arguments that will not only change minds, but also public policy, that promote the full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in a barrier-free society.”

To date, Foelsch has taught more than 300 students at Maryville University.

“The students who graduate from our program can hit the ground running in their careers,” says Colleen Starkloff. “They have already had first-hand experience with people with disabilities and they approach their work from a Disability Right perspective.” Graduates of our program who have gone on to work in Centers for Independent Living are known to be of the highest quality.

On December 12, Foelsch invited three people with disabilities to present to his class. Each gave a scenario in which the students needed to assess how they could collaborate with a person with a disability to reach their long- and short-term goals. This exercise dovetails nicely into their year-end project of writing an Independent Living Plan.

Foelsch emphasized the need for students to always be an effective advocate that empowers a person with a disability to create their own future goals, to live as independently as they can.

“People with disabilities need 90 percent information, 10 percent inspiration,” says Foelsch.

Many more words of wisdom will be passed on to future classes, as Foelsch begins his 15th year teaching at Maryville University this spring.

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