After Setback, Disability Studies Major at ASU Approved by Arizona Board of Regents

After Setback, Disability Studies Major at ASU Approved by Arizona Board of Regents

Beginning in Fall 2019, Arizona State University will offer a major that takes a humanistic approach to the study of disability, with classes taught by professors like Patricia Friedrich, author of a book about the literary, political, and social implications of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

After a committee initially dismissed the idea, the Arizona Board of Regents unanimously approved last month a disability studies major to be offered by the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at ASU’s West campus.

During this past semester, ASU also killed a disability studies certificate program proposed by the School of Social Transformation on Tempe’s campus.

“The fact that it’s out at West is only because they came to the provost first and by far with the best and most comprehensive program,” says ASU spokesman Bret Hovell, adding that New College will work together with the School of Social Transformation to allow SST to contribute classes to a disability studies minor.

Disability studies – particularly when focused on the humanities – is a burgeoning academic field across the country, but not, until now, in metro Phoenix, although ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is home to the National Center on Disability and Journalism (full disclosure: I sit on its board of directors).

As Patricia Friedrich explains, New College’s disability studies program will “combine expertise in different disciplines, especially in humanities and the social sciences” to allow students to understand disability holistically. The major is currently in the planning phase.

“Historically,” Friedrich adds, “there have been many medical models of disability, folks that looked at disability from a medical perspective.”

This major will be different, incorporating everything from politics to literature to architecture, with an emphasis not only on humanities but also on environment. By viewing disability as part of the environment rather than the person, one can “do more about it to make their participation in society broader and more fulfilling,” Friedrich says.

She offers an everyday example: Friedrich is 5 feet, 3 inches tall. If she had to climb stairs that were 5 feet high, that would present an environment that would disable her.

“Once you locate disability in the environment, you can ask many questions,” she says, including, “what’s making it harder to live and what can I do about it?”

Along with Friedrich, other faculty who will likely be involved with the disability studies major include Majia Nadisen, whose book Constructing Autism is, in part, about society’s reactions to autism diagnoses; Annika Mann, who focuses on literature and the history of science and medicine; and Patrick Bixby, literature and disability.

ASU West senior associate dean Todd Sandrin, who spearheaded the move to get the major approved, says it comes as “a result of the kind of expertise that our faculty has” and the desire to “continue to engage with both research and teaching elements that are important to us.”

He adds, “It’s a program that speaks very much to who we are as a college, who we are as a university and who we are as educators.”

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at