York was ‘right place’ to offer unique program on disability

Marcia Rioux was surprised at how hard some students searched for and found York’s pioneering new graduate program in critical disability studies (critical in approach, that is). Before it had even been approved or advertised, several had discovered it in York’s Senate minutes online. That’s a measure of the vacuum it fills.

“Students are wildly enthusiastic about the program,” says Rioux (left), its creator and director. “They are not coming because they want to do a graduate degree but are coming because this is specifically what they want to study.” They couldn’t have found it anywhere else.

“York is the right place for this program,” says Rioux, because it is interdisciplinary. Moreover, “York has made the attempt to be an accessible university. It has really taken into account diversity, including students with disabilities.”

 The program departs from the usual medicalized and rehabilitative approach to disabilities and “looks at disabilities as a consequence of social, legal, economic and political barriers.” Richly interdisciplinary, the program takes a unique human-rights approach to disabilities.

This is nothing new for Rioux. “The change from a medical or rehabilitative model to a rights model has been an international movement both theoretically and in terms of activism,” she says. “It’s now recognized as an important part of the work at the UN level.” Rioux should know. She works with the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and the World Health Organization in this area. Last year, she helped found a research centre at York devoted to promoting disability rights internationally. 

The program examines the geography, public policy, and language and literature of disability, and explores it in the context of social justice, different cultures and the age of information technology. The core program consists of an overview, which Rioux will deliver, a methodology course and a research paper. It also includes – uniquely – a law course. “This is really important because it’s about how law gets structured and how legislative frameworks in different countries look at these issues.”

Rioux believes many graduates will end up developing policy at national and international levels. She expects to attract students who work in human rights enforcement, employment equity programs, policy development and health.

This program is important “because people with disabilities have been traditionally marginalized in society,” says Rioux. Their rates of employment are significantly lower. They don’t have the same access to education. They face high levels of violence and abuse. And social programs have not been designed to take into account their particular circumstances.

“So what we need to do is create a way to study this disadvantage and provide solutions to the continuing inequality,” says Rioux. “We have to address the social and legal construction of inequality of people with disabilities.”

She has recruited faculty from York and adjunct faculty from England, Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand to do just that.

“I’m thrilled,” says Rioux. “One of the reasons I came to York was because I wanted a program like this to be established. It’s something I thought was needed….York has been receptive.”