Disability Pride

A Q&A with Dr. Susan Ghiaciuc, Disability Studies Co-Coordinator

Research and Scholarship

SUMMARY: Along with the framework used by Disability Studies scholars, Susan Ghiaciuc explains the creation of the Disability Studies minor here at JMU.

By Erin Phillippi (‘08M), JMU Research & Scholarship

According to the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, over one billion members of the global population are disabled, making the celebration of Disability Pride Month in July increasingly important to many. Sometimes confused with Disability Awareness Month in March, Disability Pride Month distinguishes disability as an aspect of identity that should be honored, not a condition that requires a cure. This philosophy underpins the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies (DS). The Office of Research and Scholarship recently spoke with one of the co-coordinators of the Disability Studies minor, Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication Susan Ghiaciuc, about the program’s development and its relationship to DS scholarship.

R&S: What prompted you to create the Disability Studies minor, and how has it evolved since its inception? 

Ghiaciuc: A unifying theme of my research is how language shapes our perception of identity, how identity is defined, and whose voices are marginalized as a result. I had added a week in my WRTC 103 [Rhetorical Reading and Writing] course where I introduced students to a discussion on labeling disability rhetorically and based on its success, I eventually proposed and taught a special topics WRTC course focused on Disability Rhetorics. Student feedback on this course was overwhelmingly positive, with many students noting that if there were a Disability major or minor at JMU, they’d enroll. During that time, I was also fortunate enough to meet people like Valerie Schoolcraft, director of the Office of Disability Services (ODS), as well as other professors who were teaching disability-related topics. These conversations made it clear that JMU students would benefit from a Disability Studies minor (DST).  

I approached Dr. A.J. Morey, [the] head of cross-disciplinary minors at the time, and she was very encouraging. After that, I began working with [several] people across the university, including Daisy Brenneman, Dr. Josh Pate, Dr. Kerry Dobransky, Valerie Schoolcraft and Matt Trybus, all of whom form the current DST minor steering committee. Together, we elicited and examined numerous syllabi submitted to us by professors from a variety of departments for potential inclusion in the minor. We first enrolled students in 2017 and have since been growing steadily. We continue to approve additional courses for credit toward the minor and serve as a resource for faculty looking to address DST in their [home] departments. 

R&S: As the minor has grown, what kinds of classes and scholarly projects have resulted from its presence on campus?  

Ghiaciuc: The steering committee designed DST 100, an online introductory course that’s mandatory for DST minor students. This team-taught course provides an…overview of Disability Studies topic areas, with each instructor teaching two weeks of core disciplinary content. For Fall 2022, some new courses in the minor include SCOM 313: Rhetoric of Disability Advocacy and HON 301: Rhetorics of Disability Representation.

Another key development is a DST library collection. DST faculty collaborated with library staff to create a research guide for faculty and students interested in Disability Studies topics. 

R&S: What does it mean for a scholar to use Disability Studies as a lens for their research? How does it inform their methodology and praxis? What are students doing with this practice?

Ghiaciuc: Generally speaking, Disability Studies scholars understand and articulate the field as one grounded in the lived experiences and opinions of people with disabilities. A Disability Studies lens purposefully asserts that disability represents a political and social identity and critiques attempts to essentialize and define, or position, disability as a medical condition in need of a cure. Methodologically speaking, disability scholars invoke the oft-repeated phrase, “Nothing about us without us”, and advocate for more inclusive design, such as centering disability in research practices from the beginning and not retrofitting or demanding linear, normed conclusions. Inclusive design in research might focus on offering a variety of approaches to a qualitative interview – whether through face to face, laptop, phone, etc. – as well as including drawing, pointing or ASL as equally valid [methods].

Introducing students to Disability Studies theory and practice often represents, in my opinion, a moment of excitement and relief. Each year students will ask, “Why didn’t they teach us anything about this in K-12?” Afterward, most undergrads eagerly pursue Universal Design (UD) in their writing projects and attempt to make their work more accessible to a variety of audiences, whether through captioned videos, podcasts, alt descriptions of images or using braille.

R&S: The minor’s development has mirrored overall growth in Disability Studies. What do you recognize as the key issues in the field, and how have those issues affected the curriculum in the minor? How are JMU faculty and students participating in these larger DS conversations? 

Ghiaciuc: One of the most significant issues…we continue to focus on in the field is accessibility and Universal Design. We address this in our individual courses through curriculum design, content and assignments that continue to involve incorporating evolving approaches and technology. In addition, several DST faculty [members] serve on committees advising Presidential Alger’s office on issues of accessibility on campus. 

Additionally, faculty members involved in DST have presented at the annual JMU Diversity Conference on [many] occasions and, in 2019, were invited to present on a “Disability as Diversity” panel to faculty at Washington and Lee University. Faculty regularly attend and present at disability-focused conferences, often collaboratively, and [produce] related publications, such as inclusion in the anthology Negotiating Disability, Disclosure in Higher Education from the University of Michigan Press.

R&S: This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though that legislation initiated significant changes at the national level, there’s still work to be done. What’s next for Disability Studies and DST faculty at JMU? 

Ghiaciuc: Valerie Schoolcraft and ODS organized Disability Awareness Week [before] the formation of the minor, and that tradition continues and remains a significant opportunity for visibility on campus. We plan to continue growing the minor through new course offerings, with an immediate focus on Universal Design expansion, while continuing with our advocacy and participation in campus accessibility initiatives.

DST’s drive for accessibility and inclusion is also seen in recent scholarship from the program’s faculty, including Professor of Sociology Kerry Dobransky’s co-authored article, “Piercing the Pandemic Social Bubble: Disability and Social Media Use About COVID-19,” in American Behavioral Scientist and “The closing skills gap: revisiting the digital disability divide,” a co-authored chapter appearing in the Handbook of Digital Inequality, both published in 2021. As the fall semester starts, follow the Disability Studies minor page for updates or connect with the co-coordinators for more information.

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Published: Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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