‘Disability is inevitable’: CGS adds new Disability Studies certificate


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The Cathedral of Learning.

By Pamela Smith, Contributing Editor

When disability issues are discussed, there is often little perspective offered outside of the medical field. Samuel Pittman, an English professor and director of the new Disability Studies certificate, said this program will help students understand disability issues in a more interdisciplinary way.

“The aim of this certificate is to have students learn about disability in a not-strictly medical way, which is usually how it’s understood, and to counter some of the misconceptions about people with disabilities that are often informed by pervasively medical models,” said Pittman. 

Pitt’s College of General Studies introduced a Disability Studies certificate program last semester. The certificate is 18 credits, and includes courses from eight different departments — all courses focus at least a quarter of their content on disability topics. As of this semester, around ten students declared the certificate, according to Pittman.

“It’s deliberately interdisciplinary so that students have to take courses from across different programs and departments,” Pittman said. “There has to be a collection there, which I think is part of the appeal to it, that it’s getting a broad scope of people.”

Liz Scabilloni, a sophomore communication sciences and disorders major, declared the certificate to aid her in a future healthcare career. 

“As a future speech-language pathologist, just being able to better understand where my would-be patients are coming from, their experiences … would be the most important thing for me,” Scabilloni said. 

Scabilloni believes disability issues are not discussed enough in classes she’s taken outside of the certificate.

“Right now I’m taking a social problems class, and I think there’s a module about disability …  but I might be making that up. Which just goes to show that there really should be, because disability issues don’t get talked about enough,” Scabilloni said. “I can’t say definitively that I’ve taken a class that has discussed it up until this point.”

Lynn Priestley, a senior digital narrative and interactive design major, said the classes in the certificate are “refreshing” in their approach to disability. Priestley has also declared the certificate, and completed several courses in the program prior to its implementation at the University.

“The certificate tends to highlight the alternative paths of accepting that disability is inevitable and how we adapt, how we create access in our environments,” Priestley said. “As a disabled student, you don’t get to see that perspective very often. I think it’s just really nice for there to be a space where it’s just shown in a more positive light.”

Pittman would like to see the program expand at Pitt in the future as student interest in the certificate grows. 

“I think that as coursework grows across the University — and people are already doing disability studies work, it’s just kind of isolated, so now we’re able to bring things together — I would like it to become a major,” Pittman said. “In terms of the certificate itself, I think bringing in more representation from different departments, different schools at the University, and getting more students … I can see that growing quite a bit in the next two or three years.”

Priestley also hopes that the certificate can expand to a major or minor in the future, and believes it would especially benefit healthcare-related majors.

“They can have a view of disability that isn’t always productive in terms of meeting patients where they are, especially for cases where ‘normative’ based treatment isn’t helpful,” Priestley said. “I just think a lot could be done in terms of improving healthcare experiences for disabled people by having disability studies be more of a component in healthcare professionals’ education.”

Priestley encourages any student that’s even “remotely interested” to take the intro to disability studies course.

“I think people might be surprised by how much it can intersect with whatever they’re doing,” Priestley said. “It’s relevant to design, it’s relevant to healthcare. It’s relevant to just being a human being.”