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Sociology | Department News

Social Sciences

Disability Diversity Panel

By Andrea Brenner and Allie Cannington

Allie Cannington and Andrea Brenner

American University’s Sociology Department provides numerous opportunities to study systems of inequality and privilege and how those systems impact and interact with the diverse individuals and communities across this country and around the world. Yet, from the foundational course work to the upper division classes, there has been something missing: the inclusion of discourse about people with disabilities and ableism. This exclusion of disability, specifically when studying power, privilege and inequality, struck the hearts and minds of several students in the department and they decided to take action.

Modeled after the Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s Rainbow Speakers Bureau, the students came together to form the Disability Diversity Panel. They believed that in order to open the door to sociological discourse on disability, students and faculty must first hear the stories of disabled students themselves. Holistically, the Disability Diversity Panel’s goal is to establish a dialogue on disability, what disability means to those who identify and/or experience it, and how disability plays an integral role in our society, specifically as a key attribute to human diversity. 

In order to accomplish the panel’s mission, the first portion of the panel is devoted to presenting key terms and concepts related to disability. This includes but is not limited to ableism, the social model of disability, disclosure, the “coming out” process, self- identification, and intersectionality. After a brief foundation is established, the panelists tell their personal stories which are followed by a question and answer session. This question and answer period provides opportunities for other students to dialogue with specific panelists about their stories and/or general curiosities about disability. This point of the program allows students to ask specific questions that relate to general sociological themes or the specifics topics that relate to their course.  

Furthermore, the Disability Diversity Panel program is dedicated to building a cohort of student speakers and facilitators that are representative of the overall disabled population; this includes diversity of disability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, etc. Currently, the student panelists have a range of disabilities from mental health disabilities, physical disabilities, to learning disabilities. Every panelist has a completely different voice to share regarding their disabilities; yet all are dedicated to including disability in academic and social discourse as well as seeing disability as a diversity and civil rights issue.  

Three panel presentations were completed to date and we have continued to get extremely positive feedback from audience members. Their encouraging words and feedback include:  

I felt like I walked away completely enlightened to the inequality of people with disabilities and just over all better informed.”  

I didn't know that there was a term for people who discriminated against those who are disabled. I'm glad I know what ableism is now.

…it offered educational information by putting a face to things most people had never heard about.

…going into the terms and theories that surround disability was also extremely mind opening and educational.”  

I had never known there were different ways of looking at disability.

Almost everyone who leaves the panel asks themselves and others: why this is the first time disability and ableism has been discussed in a sociology course? Moreover, they continue to request for more then just this panel. This interest is also reflected in our outreach for speakers and facilitators, as multiple audience members are empowered to share their stories or to serve as active allies for future panels. 

All in all, the leaders of this panel series, including our faculty advisor, Andrea Brenner, are proud and excited to continue to implement the Disability Diversity Panel and expand AU’s sociology discourse. The panels can take place during any American University class and there is an option to have the panel closed to the class or open to the AU community. If you are interested in having the panel in your future course or simply want to find out more, please contact Allie Cannington at