Disability Studies

Disability Studies at Hofstra University is an undergraduate program – available as a minor – that explores the complex phenomenon of disability from multiple disciplinary and interdisciplinary angles. Disability Studies helps prepare students for careers in medicine, social work, public service, and teaching, in which they are likely to deal with people with disabilities; it also educates students about the way in which disability affects all citizens as it impinges on issues of broad public concern – such as abortion, capital punishment, genetics and eugenics, euthanasia, health care and health insurance, and welfare. Hence, the Disability Studies program seeks to equip students with the knowledge to develop informed positions on these matters.

About the Program

Hofstra University has a longstanding tradition of understanding and cultivating a culture that champions the rights of people with disabilities. Dr. Harold E. Yuker, a former provost and dean of faculties from 1973 to 1982, was a leading authority on attitudes toward people with disabilities during his illustrious academic career. In 1981, Hofstra was publicly acclaimed as the first private university in the United States to achieve the goal of making all of the University’s programs and activities architecturally barrier-free. What had begun as a resolution adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1963 became part of campus life, as each new building was and is designed to accommodate those with physical disabilities. The late Dr. Frank Bowe, who served on the faculty of Hofstra’s School of Education from 1989 to 2007, served as executive director of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities from 1976 to 1981. He provided crucial direction during the nationwide sit-in regarding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1977, the world’s first civil rights provision for persons with disabilities, which eventually led to the American Disabilities Act, passed in 1990.

Hofstra University’s Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library has been designated by the Long Island Library Resources Council as an “area library” for disability studies. The Disability Studies program was initiated in 2003 by Dr. G. Thomas Couser, professor emeritus of English, making Hofstra one of a small number of universities nationwide to have an undergraduate program in this rapidly growing field.

In the simplest terms, the mission of the Disability Studies program is to teach "disability literacy." Put more formally, the program's mission is to help students grasp the field's constitutive concepts and their broad implications for their lives as individuals, as family members, and as members of larger communities, national and global.

Disability Studies is predicated on the distinction between "impairment," an anomaly in the form or function of a particular person's body, and "disability," which comprises social and cultural responses -- attitudinal, architectural, legislative, and so on -- to anomalous bodies. Thus, medicine and rehabilitation address and may alleviate impairment; society as a whole must address disability. In the field of Disability Studies, disability is understood as a social and cultural construct akin to gender, race, and ethnicity. The Disability Studies program explores how disability is expressed in systems of representation like literature, film, and mass media; defined by legislation; understood by philosophy and ethics; and created and accommodated (or not) by economies and methods of production.

Because disability is multifaceted, the minor is of necessity multi- or interdisciplinary. The minor's two core courses -- Introduction to Disability Studies and Disability in Literature and Culture -- aim to provide students with a critical "disability perspective" that should inform and integrate what they learn in electives.

Disability literacy is increasingly important in today's citizens because disability is often a significant factor in current debates over issues such as euthanasia, capital punishment, genetics and eugenics, health care, and welfare. Hence, the Disability Studies program also seeks to equip students to develop informed positions on these matters.

Learning Goal 1: Students will gain an awareness of disability as a social and cultural construct.


  1. Explain the distinction between impairment and disability
  2. Explain the major paradigms that have been used to understand and represent disability in Western cultures.
  3. Identify major developments in disability history

Learning Goal 2: Students will acquire an analytic framework for evaluating representations of disability in culture.


  1. Analyze the representation of disability in a literary text, film, work of art, or other cultural text.
  2. Identify which of the major paradigms for understanding disability is evident in a literary text, film, work of art, or other cultural text.

Learning Goal 3: Students will develop informed positions on public policy debates that bear on disabled populations.


  1. Explain how a given issue impacts disabled people in particular
  2. Explain the various competing arguments (and the ethical or legal principles informing those arguments) on the disputed issue
  3. Articulate one’s own position on the issue

Learning Goal 4: Students should acquire a basic understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


  1. Explain who is protected by the ADA
  2. Identify examples of actions prohibited by the ADA
  3. Identify examples of actions required by the ADA

Most students who minor in Disability Studies are preparing for careers in medicine, rehabilitation, audiology, and education, especially special education. Given the numerous legal and ethical issues inherent in disability, Disability Studies is also excellent preparation for careers in law, journalism, and politics. Given the increasing presence of persons with disabilities in the workplace, Disability Studies is also good preparation for careers in business. The minor's two dedicated courses -- Disability Studies 1, Introduction to Disability Studies, and Disability Studies 2, Disability in Literature and Culture -- will help students develop their skills in argument and analysis; further, the interdisciplinary nature of the courses and the minor as a whole encourages students to look at problems from multiple perspectives and in flexible and innovative ways.

Disability is a fundamental facet of human diversity -- people with disabilities make up the largest minority in the U.S. population -- and disabled people have histories and cultures deserving of study on their own terms. Disability Studies thus has a strong claim to a place in any multicultural curriculum. Yet disability lags behind race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class in recognition inside and outside the academy.

Disability Studies is not solely or primarily the study of disabled people as a distinct population, however; rather, it involves the comprehensive investigation of disability as a cultural construct that undergirds social practices and cultural representations in various media. As contemporary Disability Studies scholars view it, then, disability is a significant and powerful cultural category; like race and gender, disability is a cultural construct (or system of representation) that assigns traits to individuals -- and discriminates among them -- on the basis of bodily differences.

At the heart of contemporary Disability Studies is the "social paradigm" of disability, which deflects attention from variations and dysfunctions in individual bodies (which are referred to as impairments) to restrictions imposed on aberrant bodies by exclusive physical, social, legal, and cultural environments. That is, the social paradigm locates disability at the intersection between individuals and their cultural contexts. (It thus distinguishes itself from the medical paradigm of disability, which locates disability in defects or anomalies of bodies.) The social paradigm underpins and in effect mandates a social and political agenda: if disability is not a matter of physical anomalies but rather of oppressive social frameworks, then the remedy is not to fix individual bodies but to reform the body politic. In effect and in intention, the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, inscribed this paradigm into federal law, by requiring accommodations to maximize access and inclusion.

Disability Studies is a relatively young but rapidly maturing field. It grew out of the Disability Rights Movement and had its first academic manifestation in the social sciences in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK as well as in the U.S.; in the 1990s, a second wave of work emerged in the U.S., primarily in the humanities. These approaches occasionally clash, but ultimately they are complementary.

Many controversial issues in the arena of public policy and public culture -- such as abortion, capital punishment, eugenics and genetics, euthanasia, health care and health insurance, and welfare --are bound up with disability concerns. Increasingly, contemporary citizens need to understand disability in cultural and historical context in order to make decisions that often literally involve life or death. With the aging of the population, the invention and application of new medical technologies, and a crisis in health care, "disability literacy" will become all the more desirable -- indeed, indispensable --as an attribute of an informed public.

Hofstra has a distinguished tradition of accessibility and hospitality to disabled people. It has long welcomed students with a variety of disabilities, major and minor, visible and invisible, acquired and congenital. Furthermore, Axinn Library's collection has substantial strength in the field. It carries many specialized journals, and its book collection is also very comprehensive -- in part because it benefits from state funding (through the Department of Education) as a designated Long Island Library Resources Council "area library" for disability studies. So the University is rich in both disability history and resources.


Consists of the successful completion of 18 semester hours, under advisement, with at least 6 hours in residence, as follows: 6 hours of courses in Disability Studies; 12 hours of electives (see Bulletin).

Course Descriptions

Disability Studies 1: Introduction to Disability Studies (IS)

An introduction to the field of Disability Studies. Disability Studies approaches disability not as an individual tragedy or a medical problem but as a cultural construct -- akin to gender and race -- that undergirds social practices and cultural representations in various media. This course draws on various disciplinary perspectives to understand the broad and complex phenomenon of disability in historical perspective, as represented in literature and culture, and as it impinges on issues of broad public concern today.

Disability Studies 2: Disability in Literature and Culture (LT)

This course examines the representation of disability in Western literature and culture. The overriding concerns of the course will be with how the body's shape and capacities have been assumed to determine character and fate, how physical and mental impairments have been used in literature to signify moral and psychological states, and how representation may challenge conventional conceptions of "normality" and "disability." Literary texts from various periods will be supplemented with some nonliterary texts and documentary films. Prerequisite: WSC 1. Same as ENGL 196D.

Contact Us

For more information on Disabilities Studies, please contact:


Dr. Craig Rustici
Room 310 Mason Hall
Email | Bio