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Updated 10:00 AM October 25, 2004




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New class seeks to broaden knowledge about disabilities

It's your average classroom: one door, a table and chairs, and a projection screen at the front. Only the door is a little wider, the table is a little lower and the projection screen displays real-time captioning.
Guest speaker Peg Ball, independent living advocate for the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living speaks to students in the Topics in Disability Studies class. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The course, too, is a little different. It's the first of its kind at U-M: Topics in Disability Studies.

Kristine A. Mulhorn, an associate professor who is co-instructor of the course and a member of the U-M Initiative on Disability Studies (UMInDS) steering committee, says the class is designed to introduce disability awareness and advocacy to students.

"The main goal [of UMInDS] was to bring disability studies to campus, and the way to do that was to teach a course," she says. "We want to be part of a university that is welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities."

The graduate-level course tackles topics ranging from Shakespeare to architecture, aesthetics to politics. During a recent class, guest speaker Peg Ball, independent living advocate for the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living (AACIL), told students that images of disability have come a long way in recent decades. These images fall into two extremes: either pitiful or superhuman.

"These two extremes—the 'pitiful cripple' and the 'super cripple'—both steal a person's dignity and humanity," says Tobin Siebers, co-instructor of the class, director of UMInDS and director of the Program in Comparative Literature.

In the class, students and teachers alike share their knowledge of disability with each other. This is a course in which someone who is lecturing from the lectern one moment may be the one jotting notes the next.

Jim Magyar, executive director of the AACIL, spoke with the class about a lawsuit brought against the City of Ann Arbor this year. The lawsuit charges the city with being in violation of certain codes that regulate, for example, the slope of sidewalks around the city.

An undergraduate student in the course, Sarah Watkins knows the dangers of steep, slick inclines around busy intersections.

"Have you guys looked at the sidewalks at Hill and State Street? Those are horrible!" says Watkins, who uses a motorized-wheelchair.

The course is in its first of three years, having been funded by the Office of the Provost, LSA, the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and the Office of the Vice President for Research for six consecutive semesters. Topics in Disability Studies is referenced under 10 different topical cross-listings in Ann Arbor and Flint, including architecture, women's studies and English.

For more information on UMInDS, visit Contact Mulhorn at for information about the Topics in Disability Studies class.

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