The University of Illinois at Chicago has launched the new department of disability and human development, which offers a master's degree program and, in collaboration with two other departments, the nation's first Ph.D. program in disability studies. The new department and degree programs are located in UIC's College of Health and Human Development Sciences.
"Research shows that a large and growing portion of the U.S. population is affected by disability," said David Braddock, head of the new department. "Disability is a significant and growing part of our economy and is closely associated with unemployment, poverty and minority status.
"As a university located in the heart of one of the world's great urban metropolises, and an established leader in disability research and public service, UIC is ideally positioned to create an academic department that trains health professionals grounded in disability studies and prepared to address the challenges of the future."
The need for and relevance of the new department stem from several developments, including the disability rights movement, Americans with Disabilities Act and the increase in the number of people with disabilities as the population ages, according to UIC experts.
The disability rights movement gradually is changing the way Americans view disability. This evolving view asserts that specific impairments often are of minor importance to persons with disabilities compared to the societal issues of exclusion, blocked access, discriminatory practices, educational segregation, poverty and unemployment.
"We'll expose our students to the view that impairment is not always the horrible tragedy that most people think it is," said Carol Gill, professor-in-charge of the disability studies concentration of the master's degree program. "The tragedy is how society responds to people who function differently. We want the education of our students, whether they come from liberal arts or occupational and physical therapy backgrounds, to be illuminated and informed by a broad and complex view of disability."
The disability rights movement and its offspring, the Americans with Disabilities Act, are having a tremendous impact not only on society, but also on the economy. As the groundwork is laid for people with disabilities to be integrated into society, American businesses and government entities increasingly are employing or relying on the services of people with expertise in disability. Additionally, the growing number of people with age-related disabilities is spawning growth in the number of businesses and other organizations that provide services and support for this group and their families.
"Many people working in disability or related fields have bachelor's degrees but little or no formal education in disability. They can broaden their knowledge and possibly advance their careers through the master's degree," said William Schiller, assistant director of graduate studies for the department. Expertise in disability will make all graduates more effective in their chosen careers and more marketable, he added.
The new interdisciplinary Ph.D. in disability studies targets students who want to pursue careers in research and academia. This unique degree program is administered jointly by the department of disability and human development, department of occupational therapy and department of physical therapy. Graduates of the program will be prepared to take leadership roles in service programs and academic programs that train professionals in a variety of disability-related fields including the emerging discipline of disability studies, said Gary Kielhofner, director of graduate studies for the disability studies Ph.D. program.
Some students in the joint doctoral program in disability studies will focus their scholarship primarily on the political, social, economic and cultural issues of disability. Other students will take a core of courses in these areas and concentrate on how therapies can be more effective for people with disabilities. "This program will provide what disabled people always have wanted: disability professionals who understand about the disability rights movement, why it exists, disability pride, and the day-to-day struggles presented by socially constructed barriers," Gill said.
Faculty in both degree programs include national experts who are expanding the body of knowledge in their disciplines. UIC has recruited leading academicians from across the country, many who have disabilities, to teach in both degree programs. "One of the cornerstones of disability studies is that it must include the voices and perspectives of persons with disabilities," Gill said.
Among the courses these faculty will teach are "History of Human Differences: Disability Minorities in America," "Qualitative Methods in Disability Research," "Services and Ethics in Disability," "Family Perspectives in Disability," "Disability in the Urban Environment," "Adaptive Equipment Design and Fabrication" and "Narrative and the Phenomenology of Disability."
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