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Disability Studies

Lydia X.Z. Brown -- We The Future -- Are Building Disability Justice. Richly colored drawing of a person wearing a t-shirt that says: "DISABLED & PROUD." The "i" in "disabled" is stylized to be a raised fist, the classic symbol of political empowerment. The artist has placed the subject amidst flowers and leafy plants. In the top right corner, text reads: "We The Future Are Building Disability Justice."

“Lydia X.Z. BrownWe The FutureAre Building Disability Justice,” Kate DeCiccio © 2018.

This guide provides an introduction to the field of scholarship known as disability studies. Below, you will find a broad overview of the discipline, and in the sidebar menu you will find lists of related resources available through the library, on the Pratt campus, and in the broader information sphere.

For resources available to those with disabilities in the Pratt Community, please visit our Disability Resources guide.


“Disability is an enigma that we experience but do not necessarily understand.”
— Gary L. Albrecht, Katherine D. Seelman, and Michael Bury, from the introduction to Handbook of Disability Studies (2001)

Disability studies is an academic discipline that examines the meaning, nature, and consequences of disability (Disability studies, 2023). As a field, disability studies resists convenient definition: its scholars have taken a multiplicity of approaches in their interrogations of disability, itself a term that resists singular definition and instead gains meaning in relation to specific contexts and perspectives.

According to the Society for Disability Studies (What is disability studies?), scholarship in disability studies should:

  • Challenge the view of disability as an individual deficit or defect that can be remedied solely through medical intervention or rehabilitation by “experts” and other service providers.
  • Study national and international perspectives, policies, literature, culture, and history with an aim of placing current ideas of disability within their broadest possible context.
  • Encourage participation by disabled students and faculty, and ensuring physical and intellectual access.


In 1986, the Section for the Study of Chronic Illness, Impairment, and Disability of Social Science Association was renamed the Society for Disability Studies; its journal Disability Studies Quarterly became the first academic journal in disability studies. The first US disabilities studies program emerged in 1994 at Syracuse University, and courses of study have continued to expand (Disability studies, 2023). 

Models of Disability

Below is an overview of the major models (or frameworks) of disability which disability studies scholars work with and against (Disability: Definitions and Models, 2022):

Medical Model

The medical model explains disability disadvantage in terms of pathological states of the body and mind themselves. It regards the limitations faced by people with disabilities as resulting primarily from their bodily differences.

Social Model

In contrast to the medical model, the social model explains the characteristic features of disability in terms of a relation between an individual and her social environment: the exclusion of people with certain physical and mental characteristics, or “impairments,” from major domains of social life. In the social model, disability is not seen as inherent to those who have impairments; rather, disability is the culmination of disadvantages imposed on those with impairments by social structures that contribute to the neglect of or bias towards the needs of those who are impaired.

Affirmative Model

Disability activists and disabled scholars have questioned the apparent shared assumption of both the medical and social models, that disability is fundamentally a matter of disadvantage, exclusion, or functional limitation. The affirmative model of disability and impairment, as articulated by John Swain and Sally French (Towards an Affirmation Model of Disability, 2000), holds that disability is not in the first instance a problem—not simply or solely a “personal tragedy,” and implicitly, not simply or solely a social injustice either. Rather, disability is a different way of living in and experiencing the world, one not characterized by its disadvantages any more than its advantages.


Disability: Definitions and Models. (2022, April 14). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 30, 2023, from

Disability studies. (2023, October 6). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 30, 2023, from

Swain, J., French, 2. (2000). Towards an Affirmation Model of Disability. Disability & Society, 15(4) 569-582.

What is disability studies? Society for Disability Studies. Retrieved October 30, 2023, from

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