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Disability, Health, and Bodies: How We View Each Other

An interview with Senior Professorial Lecturer Tanja Aho about AU’s new certificate in “Disability, Health, and Bodies”

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American University’s College of Arts and Sciences launched a new undergraduate certificate in Disability, Health, and Bodies, which introduces students to the disciplines of critical disability studies, critical mad studies, critical autism studies, critical body studies, and critical fat studies. The certificate program resides in the Department of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies (CRGC).

The interdisciplinary certificate spans American studies, public health, psychology, philosophy, religion, advocacy, politics, and law. It critically examines the social, cultural, historical, and political dimensions of disabled people and those with other physical and mental differences. Students are encouraged to challenge stereotypes and advocate for a more inclusive society.

“This program of study is a crucial prong of American University’s efforts to build a truly inclusive and equitable place of inquiry,” says CRGC Department Chair and Professor of History Eileen Findlay. “This certificate shows students of all backgrounds how transformative disability studies and its practitioners’ vision of full access for all people can be for educational institutions and for society at large. Students who complete this certificate will have a strong grounding in a field which is growing by leaps and bounds. They will also have an established record of community change and engagement which will serve them well in their search for employment.”

We reached out to Senior Professorial Lecturer Tanja Aho, who helped develop the certificate program, and who teaches several of its courses, to ask them why this degree is so important right now and how it can prepare students to understand the complexities of the human experiences and make a positive impact on society.

Q. The Disability, Health, and Bodies certificate is relatively new to American University. Can you explain the certificate to us, and share a bit about the courses students will take?

A. During the summer of 2021, Director of American Studies and Associate ProfessorMary Ellen Curtin and I set out to develop a certificate in disability studies and its intersections with critical health studies and critical body studies. We wanted to offer students a more well-rounded liberal education that included the often-neglected diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) category and lived experience of disability. We wanted to offer the certificate to all undergraduates, regardless of their major, and we worked with many folks across AU to create a certificate that allows students in a range of disciplines to integrate disability studies with courses in cultural studies, public health, and social justice.

Students began earning the certificate in fall 2022, and in the last year, the number of recipients has more than doubled. The two core classes of the certificate, “Disability, Health, and Bodies” and “Mental Health, Madness, and Neuroqueerness” introduce students to the fields of critical disability studies and critical mad studies. They aim to foster a level of knowledge and awareness in students that allows them to apply their insights about disability and mental health to their own lives, their work environments, and society writ large. Both classes combine academic and experiential learning with a focus on public-facing knowledge production that can travel outside the confines of the university and into everyday life, allowing students to actively influence their environments to foster more accessible and equitable spaces.

Q. Why did you develop the certificate, and why is it so important in our society and on our campus right now? 

A. Disability, neurodivergence, and chronic illness are often left out of the DEI conversation. This is important because disabled BBIPOC (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and/or Person of Color) folks experience much higher rates of violence, neglect, and systemic struggles.

In the certificate, students learn how disability has functioned as a category of discrimination within systems of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. The core classes invite students to consider their own position in society and relationship to disability and neurodivergence, and we build community around our lived experiences and the knowledge we gain from disabled/neurodivergent/chronically ill folks.

On AU’s campus we still have so much work left to do to make our community more accessible. Groups like the Disabled Student Union and the Disability+ Faculty and Staff Affinity Group (where I serve as co-chair) are leading the way. Students are asking for more programming and spaces for and by disabled students, and with this certificate we wanted to contribute to this growing community. The pandemic has increased the rates of students who are chronically ill, experience mental anguish, or have immunocompromised loved ones, according to the National Institutes of Health. Higher education, just like society generally, is often inaccessible and disablist. Through this certificate, we want to equip students to challenge such ableist environments and build towards more accessible futures. 

Q. What are some of the important themes and conversations that students can expect? 

A. The certificate’s core embodies the ethics of disability justice – centering the lived experience of disabled/mad/neurodivergent queer and trans BBIPOC folks who, according to studies, continue to be the most marginalized people under attack in our society today.In the core classes, students learn to not only understand dominant hierarchies that continue to negatively impact disabled/mad/neurodivergent people, but alsodevelop the knowledge and skills to challenge such hierarchies and build towards more just and equitable futures. 

Both core classes center an intersectional approach to the systems of power that hinder equity, access, and justice. Each class allows students to learn more deeply about the various economic, social, cultural, legal, and historical structures that have created our contemporary moment. Each class invites students to learn from grassroots organizers about how to build more just, accessible, and equitable communities. As such, both classes center BBIPOC voices, especially those who are disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent. We learn from people’s lived experience, not just to identify injustices and inequalities, but to expand our skills towards freedom and justice. 

This means we have conversations about Native healing projects addressing the trauma of residential schools, migrant women’s lived experiences with depression, Black people’s work in the Healing Justice Movement, Southeast Asian queer care networks, and Afro-Caribbean mental health practices. Students learn about prison abolition, decolonization, community accountability, and transformative justice approaches in connection to disability justice work. The core classes are supplemented by other offerings across campus that allow students to take these foundational insights into the direction of their own academic interests. These can include Neuroethics, Multicultural Health, Issues in Women’s Health, Religion and Black Bodies of Resistance, and more.

Q. You teach courses in disability justice and have worked to make AU classrooms more accessible. As your students learn more about these issues, do you observe them putting their new knowledge to work to improve things in the real world?

A. Absolutely! Our AU students are amazing and challenge inaccessible environments in so many different ways. I have seen students who have taken my classes work with the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning (CTRL) to expand AU’s accessibility guidelines, organize local book clubs on disability issues, volunteer for local organizations such as Art Enables (a local art gallery for disabled artists), and produce zines, podcasts, TikToks, and YouTube video series that carry their knowledge across campus and into the larger world.

The core classes aim to help students become critical thinkers who will continue to ask the hard questions we need to ethically inhabit our ever-changing and complex world, and our students are living up to that.  

Q. What do you want students most to know about the certificate, and how can they reach out to find out more?

A. You do not need to identify as disabled/neurodivergent/chronically ill to earn the certificate, but if you are, you will find community and care in ways that might surprise you. If you do not identify as disabled but want to learn how to show up for disabled/neurodivergent/chronically ill people, these classes will help you understand why we still discriminate against disabled people so much and how we can change that. If you want to know more, you can always email me or come to my virtual office hours.

If you want to hear from other students, you can get in touch with the Disabled Student Union. If you have logistical questions, feel free to email Associate Professor Mary Ellen Curtin. Dr. Curtin and I are always happy to discuss ways in which we can make the certificate work for you, so please reach out!