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YSPH student champions Ivy League’s first disabilities studies program

May 09, 2023
by Fran Fried

This past November, Yushi Zhang, MPH ’23 (Social & Behavioral Sciences), spearheaded the expansion of the Disability Studies Working Group, a student group within the Department of History of Science of Medicine, into the Yale Disabilities Studies Network, a University-wide program bringing together students, alumni, and faculty who study and conduct research in disability-related fields.

The Yale Disability Studies Network expands the scope of the student group by consolidating the efforts of disability studies scholars and students, establishing a critical anti-ableist lens on campus, and integrating disability into curriculum and research across multiple university departments. The goal is to create the Ivy League’s first dedicated multi-disciplinary Disability Studies Program.

“There is no DEI [diversity, equality, and inclusion] without talking about disabilities, as the disabled population dwells in every other population the DEI topics cover,” Zhang said, “Although it intersects with many other topics, disability has its own significance, yet is often dismissed in the conversation.”

Yale has made great strides in making its facilities and services accessible to people with disabilities in the past few years, and there are vibrant affinity groups on campus, Zhang added, but the actual study of disability does not have an intellectual home at the university. Scholars and interested students have trouble finding each other. This leads to the throttling of discussion and research, despite the many highly regarded courses and scholars Yale houses. According to Zhang, this is a missed opportunity for innovative collaborations and new perspectives to arise and make an impact on both Yale as an academic institution and for the greater society to benefit from leading research institutes in all the Ivy League schools.

There is no DEI [diversity, equality, and inclusion] without talking about disabilities, as the disabled population dwells in every other population the DEI topics cover. Although it intersects with many other topics, disability has its own significance, yet is often dismissed in the conversation.

Yushi Zhang, MPH '23 (Social & Behavioral Sciences)

Zhang was initially selected as one of two student leaders of the Disability Studies Working Group, along with Rebecca Boorstein, JD, PhD candidate in History. She quickly realized, however, that the scope of the student group alone could not match the demand for a robust disability studies program. After expanding the student group into the Yale Disability Studies Network, the group grew from a few dozen interested graduate students to more than 500 members and interested parties – roughly 60% students, and 40% faculty and staff from across campus.

“DEI discussions were finally brought to light during and after COVID,” Zhang said. “There are a lot more people who are just genuinely interested in disability studies in a broad sense now than ever before. It is long overdue.”

Disability Studies as a Broad Discipline

Zhang has experience organizing people for a cause.

In her native China, she led a successful national women’s movement that helped establish essential public health infrastructure across the country, build grassroots capacity for women to practice their reproductive and parenting decisions, and as a result, grew key health metrics tenfold. As a similarly invisible population, Zhang realized that disabled people share many characteristics with women who lacked voice and agency over their own reproductive rights in China. She used her experience as an organizer in China to help push for a critical intersectional, interdisciplinary disability lens at Yale.

Traditionally, disability studies were spread across multiple siloed disciplines, often finding limited space in medical, legal, social, cultural, and historical fields. The Yale Disability Studies Network’s mission is to encourage a multidisciplinary discussion about disability, as disability in its many forms permeates all sectors of society.

“Essentially, disability studies should be an extremely broad discipline, so as to build an intellectual home for those who are interested in disability-related work that requires cross-school and interdepartmental collaborations,” she explained. “The motivation is to expand knowledge and build a new understanding of many aspects of our world, from economics and management to architecture and humanities, from public health and engineering to arts and policy.”

This vision for disability studies has never been realized in any other Ivy League school, despite their irrefutable international influence and academic responsibility.

The Business World Takes Notice

In recent years, many corporations have embraced DEI as part of their culture and human capital policy. Much of the attention has gone to race and ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ of the workforce, with companies starting to embrace employees with certain less visible disabilities, such as autism and ADHD.

“We’re just starting to see more and more neurodivergent people in the workforce in recent years, and that’s a good start,” said Zhang, who is taking a class in human capital strategies at the Yale School of Management.

But more disabilities should be accommodated in the labor force. The underutilized labor in the disabled population is astounding according to Zhang, who says that it’s a waste of talent and a missed opportunity for companies who fail to take advantage of this untapped resource .

“It requires a proper understanding of disabilities for the companies to utilize this power and essential upgrading of our society’s mentality on a granular level,” she said. “The biggest and best-managed companies in the world are looking for strategies to understand how they can incorporate the disability communities in their workforce “Multidisciplinary disability studies can not only provide frameworks for mindset shifting, but help companies in very practical ways.”

“If Yale doesn’t lead the conversation, who will?”

While some other top universities have limited disability studies options or course offerings, Zhang believes that Yale, with its promising For Humanity campaign as an example, could and should provide strong support by establishing a dedicated disability studies program and positioning the conversation around disability in a new light.

“We just want to sustain this [process], and have more attention paid to this field and have more people get involved,” Zhang said, as the petition letter to establish a disability studies center at Yale has gained strong support throughout the Yale community.

Moving forward, Zhang and her team at Yale Disability Studies Network are looking to gain the official recognition of disability studies at the institutional level, through deans’ sponsorships and other high-level support from Yale administration.

Submitted by Fran Fried on May 08, 2023