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The Value of Disability Studies on College Campuses

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Steve is smiling. Steve's skin is mildly flushed from the heat and he has sandy brown hair.

Preparing to go back to school after summer break brings up distinct memories for SDI’s Disability Studies Director, Steve Foelsch.

Twenty years ago, living in government housing and subsisting on food stamps, Steve applied for teaching positions at every public high school in St. Louis City. Five different principals called him back, eager to fill their vacancies for the upcoming school year.

But when they found out Steve used a wheelchair, enthusiastic questions of, “When can you start?” gave way to uncomfortable pauses and tepid promises of, “We’ll get back to you.” They never did.

The blatant discrimination didn’t make Steve bitter toward an unjust, inaccessible world. It did, however, leave him with an exceedingly negative view of disability, an identity he wanted to distance himself from completely. Although Steve could hardly be blamed for feeling this way, his aversion to all things disability nearly cost him the opportunity for the independent life he sought.

“I met Colleen [Starkloff] at a polling station next to where I was living,” Steve recalls. “She asked if I would be interested in helping her create a curriculum on Disability Studies. Here’s someone offering me a job, and I don’t call her back because I didn’t want anything to do with disability.”

Fortunately, Colleen didn’t give up. Steve Foelsch is now the longest tenured employee of the Starkloff Disability Institute, other than Colleen herself. As an adjunct professor of Disability Studies at Maryville University, Steve now fully embraces the subject he is uniquely qualified to teach.

“I still try and stress to my students the danger of internalizing stigma. If a person with a disability internalizes stigma, then they prevent themselves from taking part in any kind of advocacy,” Steve cautions. “The internalization of stigma turns them into their own biggest enemy, oppressor, and discriminator.”

Colleen imagined a Disability Studies curriculum designed and taught by educators with disabilities. People like Steve and SDI Career Academy Director Susan Menhard helped make it happen. Colleen made the right connections at Maryville and the three of them were teaching classes on campus by 2005.

At the time, Disability Studies classes were part of the Health Science Department and most of Steve’s students were preparing for careers as Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, or Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors. While SDI’s courses in Disability Studies remain crucial components of the Vocational Rehabilitation Program at Maryville, Steve says they would fit seamlessly into a number of academic categories.

“In all actuality, and I think Colleen would agree, it would be great if Disability Studies were taught in political science, history, or even anthropology or sociology, since more people are identifying as having a disability now,” Steve observes. “One of the first courses I taught was called Rehabilitation Services and I talked to students from the perspective of someone receiving services rather than acting as a counselor.”

While there is a legitimate need for Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors, Steve is glad to see Disability Studies programs and related career opportunities coming into the mainstream.

“At places like Cornell and the University of Hawaii, you can get Master’s degrees and doctorates in the specific field of Disability Studies,” Steve explains. “Rutgers is looking for an Associate Professor of Critical Disability Education, Yale has a Global Health Justice Partnership that needs Disability Studies candidates, and MIT Labs has a program called Poetic Justice and they’re hiring Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals to serve as community coordinators. These opportunities just got zapped over to me in the last two hours.”

Steve has taught a variety of classes over the years. Disability Advocacy stands out as his favorite, an interactive course that led professor and pupils to the state capital.

“Our students would find instances of inaccessibility and try to get them resolved,” Steve recollects. “We would take field trips to Jefferson City and students would learn how to identify a problem, which public officials to contact, and how to make an impactful presentation as a concerned constituent.”

Although lesson materials and class sizes haven’t changed much, Steve has noticed a fairly recent philosophical shift. Terms like disability justice and intersectionality have crept into the lexicon, sparking an attitude of activism and inclusion. This new paradigm is evident in the mindset of Steve’s students.

“I think that perhaps there is the same number of people with disabilities in my classes, but in the beginning, they wouldn’t identify themselves as having a Disability out of the stigma of having to go to the access office and get documented,” Steve reflects. “Whereas now, students are much more comfortable, not only with disclosing and talking about their experiences, but also with requesting the accommodations they need.”

It all points to one certain conclusion: the Disability Studies curriculum Colleen, Susan, and Steve invested so much of themselves in is making a real difference — creating opportunities and dismantling attitudinal barriers. Steve gets confirmation of this on a daily basis, even outside the classroom.

“When I first started working, I would get on MetroLink at Grand, one station from BJC and one station from downtown,” Steve remembers. “Back then, people would always assume I was going to the hospital. They would ask if I was sick, if I needed help. They were flabbergasted when they found out I was going to work. But that’s not a conversation I’ve had to have in the past four or five years.”

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