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 is not 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. Disability Studies, then, approaches disability as a system of representation (akin to race and gender) that assigns traits to individuals on the basis of bodily differences.
Disability Studies explores the complex phenomenon of disability from multiple disciplinary–and interdisciplinary–angles. At the heart of contemporary Disability Studies, however, is the “social paradigm” of disability, which locates disability at the intersection between individuals and their cultural and social environments. (It thus complements service-oriented approaches to disability.) It helps prepare students for careers in medicine, social work, public service, and teaching, in which they may deal with disabled persons; 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.