The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disability Studies at Rollins

By Hania Powell

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Dr. Stacey Coffman-Rosen is a professor at Rollins in the department of Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Her academic interests include disability studies, gender and sexuality, cultural studies, and disability representation in the media. She holds a doctorate in human development, and her interdisciplinary scholarship has been published by Columbia University Press, Praeger, and in a forthcoming encyclopedia on the psychology of gender by SAGE Press. Her dissertation explored the identity development of women with physical disabilities across their lifespan. In the spring, she is teaching a Critical Media and Cultural Studies course on social change and community organizing. She is a Rollins alum with a BA and Master’s of Liberal Studies, and is thrilled to be back “home” because she loves being a part of the community and the liberal arts tradition.

Dr. Coffman-Rosen currently teaches the only course on critical disability studies available at Rollins.


Hania Powell: What does disability studies mean to you? It seems like a broad subject. How would you define it to people who haven’t heard the term before?

Dr. Stacey Coffman-Rosen: Disability studies is, well, the academic study of disability. It examines the stigma, oppression, and activism of people with disabilities from the beginning of the movement to the present, and its goal is multifold in the sense that it’s theoretical, it’s practical, it’s applied, and it also pertains to an activism component.

HP: Why is it important? Why does it matter?

SCR: It matters because disability studies is often overlooked in a lot of other departments, and there’s so little information about it on this campus. I mean, there are other campuses that have full programs, whether it’s undergraduate or graduate, but there are rarely even face-to-face opportunities to take courses. Disability studies enhances your knowledge not only of liberal arts, but also the social sciences, the hard sciences, humanities; it really spans the scope of every discipline and can be applied in so many ways.

Disability touches everyone’s life at some point. If you live long enough, you live to acquire some kind of impairment or disability, [so] it’s important to know about.

Also, disability touches everyone’s life at some point. If you live long enough, you live to acquire some kind of impairment or disability, [so] it’s important to know about. From what I gather from student evaluations and everything else, disability studies is often life changing for many students who have either invisible or visible disabilities, or have friends and family members who have disabilities. I love having the opportunity to change people’s perspectives, and it’s amazing to watch people grow and change from their first response paper where they might not know that much about disability, to their final response paper when they’re like, “Wow, I didn’t know any of this existed and my perspective has changed.” There are just so many things we can learn and glean from the discipline, I’m so excited about it as a subject, and I’m just really hoping that we can expand our offerings.

HP: What does disability mean to you? What does disability look like?

SCR: Well, “impairment” refers to the medical condition, and “disability” refers to the social barriers that interfere with the lives of disabled people. Disability looks like many different things to different people – with some people, disability follows the old adage of someone with a walker, wheelchair, cane, or something like that, but there are also invisible disabilities, including psychiatric, physical, and sensory disabilities … So, I think that understanding all of the different domains and aspects of disability is remarkably important, especially now, and I think it’s a key component of a liberal arts education.

HP: With all the progress we’ve made, why does disability studies continue to be relevant?

SCR: I think there’s still a substantial amount of inequality and oppression for people with disabilities. The disabilities rights movement has often been referred to as “the last civil rights movement;” even though we have the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and other laws in the books, they’re not always effective in providing people with the access and the resources that they need. I think that the social oppression is the most dynamic and important part of it, and that increasing awareness through classes like this rather than, you know, just one awareness week a year, is vital in increasing understanding and helping students see how it relates to other areas.

HP: In media today, we see so many more representations of characters with disabilities. Isn’t that enough?

SCR: It is and it isn’t; one of the things that’s so problematic about disability and the media is that disabled characters are often played by able-bodied actors, and it’s just not an accurate representation of what it looks like or how people cope with it day to day. Without having disabled people as consultants, as actors, as writers on the Hollywood end of the spectrum, we’re only getting an able-bodied perspective of what disability is. I think that continues to reinforce a lot of the stereotypes that remain, and until we can see people with disabilities in commercials and mainstream media, it’s still like we don’t exist.

until we can see people with disabilities in commercials and mainstream media, it’s still like we don’t exist.

HP: Why does Rollins specifically still need disability studies on campus?

SCR: It’s an essential course in that it encompasses a large subject area; it’s not only a [Critical Media and Cultural Studies] course, but a [Sexuality, Women’s, and Gender Studies] course and a Global Health course, and I think what differentiates it from the other courses is that it looks at the human side of things. A lot of medical schools and medical ethics programs are now requiring their students to take disability studies or medical humanities to increase their understanding of the day to day lives of people with disabilities. There are, you know, several disability studies programs, but they’re spread all over the United States and aren’t easily accessible by a lot of people, and I think it’s vital to have this class. The anonymous student evaluations I’ve gotten have said that people’s attitudes have changed immensely from when they came in the door on the first day of class to the end of it, and there’s no better compliment I can receive as a teacher than that.

HP: What is the difference between saying “disabled people” and “people with disabilities?”

SCR: The difference is actually kind of a contested issue between the United States and Britain. In the United States, people generally prefer “people with disabilities” to put the person first. However, in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, they also recognize the fact that by saying “people with disabilities” you’re erasing the fact that the disability is often the first thing that people notice if it is a visible disability. I kind of alternate between my use of the terms, but I like “disabled people” better because it emphasizes the oppression that disabled people face every day.

I specifically do not like the term “wheelchair-bound” because people, you know, aren’t stuck to their wheelchairs 24/7. I also don’t like euphemisms like “handicapable” or “physically challenged” or “special needs,” because I think it takes the power away from oppression stigma and prejudice, and puts the responsibility on the person with the disability and makes it look like it’s something the person needs to overcome. I think we need to stop pussyfooting and dancing around the terms, and just say “disabled” or “has a disability” or whatever, but we also need to keep in mind that even though disability is incredibly important to many people’s identities, it’s not the only thing about them. First and foremost, we need to see them as people.

I specifically do not like the term “wheelchair-bound” because people, you know, aren’t stuck to their wheelchairs 24/7.

HP: What is your experience with having a disability on the Rollins campus, both as a student when you went here and as a professor?

SCR: As a student, I think there was still a long way to go. I was in undergrad from ’97 to ‘01, and then the liberal studies program from ‘01 to ‘04, and it’s just been a gigantic change from all of the accommodations and labeling of campus and the ramps, and also the social attitude. People seem to be much more accepting and aware of people with disabilities now than when I was a student. In terms of being a teacher, I haven’t encountered any problems at all. Students have been amazing about being open minded not only about the course content, but also about my personal experiences, so I think it’s just amazing how much attitudes and social change have progressed to this point. We still have work to do, as with any minority movement, but I’m so impressed with all the changes that have happened on campus.

HP: Outside of school and its scholarly applications, why is it important for students and people in general to understand experiences that aren’t their own? If they don’t live with a disability, why is it important for them to have an exposure to that?

SCR: Disability is a basic part of humanity. I mean, at any point anyone can sprain an ankle or acquire some kind of injury, and more and more people have family members who have disabilities or have children who are diagnosed with any number of disabilities, so it’s something that’s not going to go away. As people are returning from all these wars, we’re going to have more disabled people within the population than ever before, so it’s not an issue that’s going to go away. Having that awareness and having that compassion is absolutely vital, not only in terms of a thorough liberal arts education, but [also] as a person-based education and understanding the perspectives of others. The values and ethics that people acquire from this course are immensely important; it just changes who people are and how they think about things, and that’s one of the goals of Rollins education. I think it’s just something that’s needed.

HP: What does Rollins need to do better?

SCR: I think Rollins is headed in absolutely the right direction in terms of hires and in terms of the disability services office. It’s my dream to have more disability-related courses across multiple departments … I think one problem is enticing people to take the course because they really don’t know what it’s about, or they may have their own fears about saying the wrong thing or not knowing what they’re saying, and I think it’s more dangerous not taking the course at all – I’d much rather have people tell me where they’re at and work from there than have it not be available. I think that my biggest wish would be to have more courses and more students engaged in what we offer.

HP: In terms of disability accommodations, where does Rollins stand?

SCR: I think it’s exemplary as long as people file their paperwork. I know of students with disabilities who could benefit from getting accommodations, but haven’t actually gone to the office or gone through the process. That’s a little sad to me, and I think a lot of it has to do with the stigma and maybe, even though it’s confidential, they don’t want to identify themselves as person with a disability. If they did, there’s a whole plethora of resources at their disposal that could make life easier in terms of being a student…That’s the biggest barrier, but I’d also like to see disability incorporated in more social activities on campus, and integrated more into various clubs and organizations.

HP: How can students, especially student leaders on campus, combat the stigma that surrounds disability?

SCR: I think they can combat the stigma by adding disability programming—from Pinehurst to sororities and fraternities to any student organization on campus, just making sure that there’s some kind of disability presence within their organization, or if there’s not, at least having some kind of programming that addresses disability and identifies them as a disability friendly organization.

HP: I know some people are uncomfortable talking about this subject, because there is so much stigma that surrounds it, and so much fear of saying something wrong. What would you say to those people?

SCR: I would say to not be afraid. If you walk into the situation with the fear of saying something wrong, you’ll trip on your own words. Most people are more than happy to answer questions, especially in terms of what they prefer to be called or how they prefer to have their disability referred to. I think that asking questions is one of the biggest ways to fight stigma and oppression and to learn more about each person. You know, not every person is going to be exposed to disability studies, and not every person is going to have the same perspective on disability, so just by asking questions, that’s the best way – and I also think that automatically helping someone without asking permission can be a sore spot for some people. Personally, I appreciate it when I’m juggling my walker and a door and a million other things, but I also really appreciate when people ask when I need help instead of just assuming, so that’s a huge deal. I think if you have any doubts or any fear, just ask. I think that’s the best way to go about it.

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