Tosha Yingling
Tosha Yingling. “Disability studies is as important for people that consider themselves able-bodied as people with disabilities, particularly when we talk about race or class.” (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Disability studies certificate helps students critique social models through lectures, readings, guest speakers and research

The Partnership for People with Disabilities in collaboration with the School of Education launched the certificate as a unique interdisciplinary sequence of courses.

Share this story

Students enrolled in the disability studies certificate at Virginia Commonwealth University explore topics such as social models of disability, social justice and discrimination to prepare them to have a better grasp on issues of diversity as they embark on their professional careers.

Started in 2020, the sequence of courses is taught by Tosha Yingling, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the School of Education and is teaching in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Yingling researches prison education, and views disability studies as a framework to discuss social justice.

“Disability studies is as important for people that consider themselves able-bodied as people with disabilities, particularly when we talk about race or class, because we sometimes think of disability as a social ill that needs to be cured or treated in order to be changed,” Yingling said. “One of the main things that we try to teach folks in disability studies is that disability is a social construction. It's not bodies that are disformed, lacking or unable to work in a certain way. It's the fact that we have a society that makes things ableist. It makes it hard for certain people to move through society or for certain people to hear or learn in certain ways.” 

The first two classes in the sequence are IDDS 200: Disability, History and Culture and IDDS 201: Disability, Diversity and Human Rights. The third is an applications of disability studies class where students take what they've learned and apply it toward a project in their major fields of study. 

A prominent component of the certificate is disability criticism studies, a school of thought created to produce a lens by which ableism and racism are analyzed as oppressions that work together. 

“Disability criticism studies gives students that vocabulary and theoretical framework to evaluate and to examine these issues,” said Jack M. Brandt, who works as a project officer at the Administration for Community Living in Washington. “The certificate, which is open to any major, is really preparing students for their next experiences in their work or in their graduate studies. This is the first certificate of its kind in Virginia.”

“One of the main things that we try to teach folks in disability studies is that disability is a social construction.”

Tosha Yingling

Brandt helped create the certificate in 2020 when he was program coordinator of the VCU Undergraduate Certificate in Disability Studies at the School of Education’s Partnership for People with Disabilities. Fred Orelove, Ph.D., longtime executive director at the Partnership for People with Disabilities, worked for years to establish the certificate program before retiring in 2010.

“It is an exciting project because there's so much enthusiasm and support for it across the university,” said Parthenia Dinora, Ph.D., executive director of the Partnership for People with Disabilities, the center within the School of Education that coordinates the program. “It's a great opportunity to work with different people that we haven't had relationships with before and expand the scope of what VCU is doing around and including people with disabilities scholarship and research.”

Guest speakers in the disabilities certificate classes have included Lydia X.Z. Brown, a lawyer who is autistic, and Leigh Ann Craig, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU Department of History who spoke about disabilities in Europe before the 1400s. 

“A lot of our speakers were people with disabilities sharing their personal experiences and really engaged with the course content,” Yingling said.

Another guest speaker, Rebecca Keel, a visually impaired VCU School of Social Work alum and Richmond-based activist, spoke about policing issues after the deaths of George Floyd and Marcus-David Peters.

“Oftentimes, people [with disabilities] are being targeted because they have mental illnesses and that goes unchecked in that narrative,” Yingling said. “Rebecca took time with the students to talk about intersectionality [the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender] and how disability works with these other identities. It was really powerful. The class was relatable.”

Tosha Yingling
Tosha Yingling. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

The interdisciplinary and diverse group enrolled in the certificate program has ranged from musicians to social work students to those in the health care industry.

"As a mentally disabled person at VCU, I have wanted a program like the disability studies program to exist at VCU. I wanted to be able to learn about the history of disabled populations in America, understand how my major — social work — could impact different disabled populations, and the future work I can do to empower individuals with disabilities,” said Sarah Meehan, a master’s level social work student who will graduate in 2022. “I felt the disability studies program at VCU encapsulated all those aspects and more.”

Meehan said the perspectives and ideas the faculty and speakers brought to the program changed how she views disabled populations in America. 

“I highly recommend this program to anyone at VCU with an interest in understanding the different disabled populations in America and learning how one can make a positive impact towards further accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities in their field of study."