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Disability class reaches out to community

Becky Hogan | Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sixteen Notre Dame students will join the growing field of disability studies this semester in a seminar on disability that will supplement interdisciplinary academic study with community service.

“Disabilities studies is very new … and there are very few courses dedicated to it in the U.S.,” course instructor Essaka Joshua said. “When I got here I was really excited with the reaction I was getting from people within Notre Dame.”

In addition to attending traditional classes, students in the Arts and Letters College Seminar on disability will spend time each week with disabled persons at the Logan Center in South Bend. This weekly service will allow students to expand upon traditional studies through interaction with the disabled, Joshua said.

Students have backgrounds in a wide variety of studies, including medicine, anthropology, English, history, American Studies and psychology.

“[The course] attempts to look beyond seeing disability in a medical context,” Joshua said.

The seminar, which is filled to capacity, looks at various disabled communities, attitudes towards difference, the history of disability and cultural representations of disability through literature. The course will also examine government policy, the politics of charity and issues surrounding medical insurance.

Students will draw on their weekly volunteer experiences for class presentations, discussions and projects.

“The students will be helping with all sorts of recreational activities for people of all ages, learning about the lives of the clients, and about the ways in which institutions of this type can make a difference,” Joshua said.

Students will work with a Logan Center representative to select their service placement. Some students may work in the Center’s newly opened Regional Center of Autism, where they will assist clients with developing their social skills. The volunteer aspect of the course is self-directed, so the students will have the option of moving around the Logan Center and interacting with people with various disabilities.

Joshua said students will engage both in group activities and one-on-one time with Logan Center clients.

“Volunteering is very much part of the culture of Notre Dame,” Joshua said. “It’s good to be able to reward that interest and to integrate it into a study program through volunteer placement.”

Joshua said that she had no problems obtaining University approval for the course.

“The College Seminar has lots of freedom and covers topics that might appeal to students,” she said. “I had quite a lot of freedom to do what I wanted.”

Joshua said the Center for Social Concerns was instrumental in helping her create the course.

Mary Beckman, the Center for Social Concern’s director for academic affairs and research, said the disability seminar is one of three College Seminars offered with a community-based component to it. The other two classes address poverty issues.

“Students tell me that when they have experiences in the community, it gives them a sense of urgency about the issues and shows them how important it is to address these issues,” Beckman said. “Having that experience in the real world, gives them much more of a sense of the complexity of the issues.”

Students have requested more service-learning opportunities in their academic schedule, she said.

The disability course has attracted interest among alumni and faculty as well.

“I’ve even been contacted by Notre Dame alumni who are interested in the issue, and are pleased that Notre Dame is pioneering a course on this topic,” Joshua said.

Joshua, who is currently researching a book on disability in the Romantic period, said she hopes students will find the course personally as well as academically rewarding.

“I hope the students will broaden their horizons and think more deeply about questions they are interested in,” she said