LOS ANGELES — California was at the forefront of the nascent disability rights movement back in the 1970s, when Cal State and UC campuses were early incubators of disability studies courses. But those institutions lacked degree programs in the field for years.

LA Times metro reporter Sonia Sharp joined Lisa McRee on “LA Times Today” with more on how that is now changing.

Sharp explained what disability studies entail. 

“You can think of it a little bit like ethnic studies or LGBTQ studies. It’s an interdisciplinary field that talks about a particular identity group, in this case disabled folks, and looks at it from a lot of different angles. A very good example is if you’ve ever heard of narrative prosthesis, it’s the reason, for example, that Captain Hook and Darth Vader are disabled. It signals their ability. Looking at how, for example, disability shows up in culture and what it means,” she said. 

Sharp said that a mix of different students often take disability studies courses.  

“Disabled students take these classes, a lot of pre-med students take these classes, education students might take these classes and just folks who are interested in one of the beauties of college, is you can learn about a lot of different things. So there’s folks who are interested in it just for intellectual reasons,” Sharp continued..

In 2023, UCLA became the first California public university to establish a major in disability studies. CSU Northridge and San Francisco State University established minors in disability studies last year. 

Sharp also gave insight about people with disabilities who are now embracing their identity instead of hiding it.

“I grew up disabled, and when I was in school, there was a lot of pressure from my family and from the school [to] only take the accommodations you absolutely need. You downplay how much you need them,” Sharp shared. “That’s so different now, right? This is something that people are claiming with a lot of pride that they want to stand in, even if it’s not something that everybody else can perceive about them, and that that’s totally reshaped, I think, how it’s being taught and also how people are approaching it.”

One problem with the new major and minor programs is finding enough qualified teachers to instruct the students.

“One of the major barriers that schools have run up against is that folks that they might have come teach as adjuncts or in a non-tenure-track job risk, in many cases losing a home aide. Somebody to help them with tasks of daily life that they need, that’s paid through paid for through a public assistance program. They would make too much money to qualify for this necessary care, but not enough to pay for it on a private market or through private insurance... They’re really dedicated to it and they just can’t work,” Sharp explained.

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