Design, Discover, and Dance: How the Disability Studies Minor is Breaking Boundaries

by Kendall Smith


Betsy Wheeler, director of the Disability Studies Minor, shares with us the foundations of the groundbreaking program and the aspects that make it unique. Residing within the English Department, this minor program centers all aspects of disability, visible or invisible, while spanning many interests and majors alike.   


Q: How did your career path lead you to become the Director of the Disability Studies Minor? 

 A: I became a disabilities studies scholar in 2004 and I realized that the field would be a great fit for the University of Oregon. One of the things I thought about was that there really wasn’t any place [on campus] that [disabled] students could see themselves in the curriculum, and that was a gap I wanted to fill with this minor.  

One of these gaps that has been filled with a resurgence of disability education includes the School of Dance’s collaboration with DanceAbility International, a working organization that teaches and encourages creative movement for people of all ability levels. Through teacher certification and open classes, Disability Studies reaches a new level of hands-on learning.  


Q: For an incoming student considering career paths, what is or how would you describe disability studies? 

A: Well, disability studies takes a look at the history and culture of people with disabilities from their point of view. It examines the contributions that people with disabilities have made over time, how these cultures are formed, some of the basic debates and concepts of disability awareness, the social constructions of disability in history, and how we can move towards justice. Our curriculum is set up in some ways that are pretty unique; for one thing, the field work requirement. It means that you can’t graduate from U of O unless you’ve had direct, sustained contact with people in disability communities, learning directly from the source. Also, we have a big focus on the intersection of disability studies with race and gender. There is a very wide range of courses we have, across schools and colleges, that allow students to customize the minor.  


Q: How does this minor relate to or enhance a broader university education?  

A: For one thing, knowing about disability is a great tool for your cultural competence. Something that is really valuable is that a lot of our students come from the sciences and professional schools and they gain a background in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts that they wouldn’t necessarily have previous to taking disability courses. One of our most active faculty members teaches classes on interior architectural design, showing that the minor really runs the range from the literal nuts and bolts of disability access, all the way over to the philosophy of disability ethics; the most abstract to the most concrete. Also, a lot of our courses satisfy general education and group requirements, and students really like our classes. 


Q: What is one course you are especially looking forward to facilitating in the next year?  

A: I am excited to be teaching English 240: Introduction to Disability Studies this year because I think I have some cool surprises to pull out of my hat for the students!  


Q: What careers are common or bolstered by the disability studies minor?  

A: A lot of our majors come from future healthcare professions like psychology and human physiology, but also education and public policy. It is also a really good foundation for working in business, for instance human resources. Also, for students interested in going into music or dance education. I would love to see more English majors of course!  


Q: Your book Handiland highlights young people with disabilities becoming the focus of positive literature and social rights movements, how does the department continue to promote these ideas? 

A: The minor has sponsored events and panels on careers in disability equality, as well as forums that feature the work of our graduate students and visiting scholars. We have more and more graduate students working on interesting projects related to fields like game theory and comic studies. Disability is everywhere once you open your eyes to it. It infuses every area of life, so it goes with every life endeavor.  


Q: How can students get involved with or declare the disability studies minor?  

A: There are two easy ways to do it. You can go to our website, and there is a big button to click that takes you right to the declaration form. Or you can go to the English department website ( and declare a minor there.  


Q: Is there any other information you would like to share about the minor, or just in general?  

A: Something that I love about our courses in disability studies is that you get such a unique and interesting blend of students in classes. That means that there is an aspect of identity politics that goes on in the classroom where students can talk together, which is very useful for students who don’t have much acquaintance with the concept. There’s just a lot of cross-pollination and new oxygen coming into the room with so many different student backgrounds.  

These valuable learning environments enrich opportunities within the School of English as more students gain powerful knowledge through the Disability Studies minor. For more information and to remain up-to-date on events and promotions, visit the DBST website here and follow their Instagram or Facebook .