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Small school, big agenda

School of Disability Studies celebrates 20 years of activism, changing social thinking and transforming disability education
By: Antoinette Mercurio
July 23, 2019
Group of students holding award certificates

Student success is a huge part of the School of Disability Studies’ 20 years as an agent of change in the disability community. Photo credit: Clifton Li.

The School of Disability Studies (DST) celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer – a discipline that continues to evolve and shape modern discourse around disability, social justice and change.

When the program started in 1999, it was the first of its kind in Canada to provide an undergraduate degree exclusively from a disability studies perspective. The first 10 years culminated in a vital museum exhibit, Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, which provided a narrative of disability history in Canada. Since then, the school has engaged in a range of research endeavours focused on intimate citizenship, mad positive approaches in research, aesthetics and pedagogy, death, dying and mourning, cripping the arts, crip vitality and care, and trans-institutionalization.

Over two decades, the program has moved the needle on discussions about disability to something beyond accessibility and access to buildings.

“There is a tendency to reduce our contribution to the topic of individual accommodations or to notions of accessibility that can be somewhat rudimentary. Accessibility is indeed a central significance but as a concept and a set of practices that are always open to fresh and expansive interpretation and reinterpretation,” said Kathryn Church, outgoing director of the School of Disability Studies. “Access to buildings is still on the agenda. But so is access to culture and cultural production/s as well as access to lives that are as full and rich and as long as possible.”

Esther Ignagni, the new director of disability studies, says even something as simple as language has expanded tremendously over 20 years.

“Twenty years ago language might have still been corrective: resisting the single dominant story of disability,” Ignagni said. “Today, disability studies language has exploded to reflect a wide array of experiences that are connected to body-mind or embodied difference. This is an indication of how the field is growing.”

The program started with the intention of improving the quality of training for people already working in the field, with particular attention to those who were working with people with intellectual disabilities. Church has been with the program for 18 of the 20 years and has observed how the aspirations of the students have risen in two decades.

“Many grads find that a disability studies degree provides them with new (though also challenging) ways of thinking about their work that has them changing or leaving a particular job,” Church said. “Many of our grads are now using their BA in disability studies as an effective lever into further education: master’s degrees in education, in geography, anthropology, community development, sociology, for example, and in critical disability studies. We are watching some of those students complete their doctorates as well.”

In her outgoing tenure as director, Church was awarded the Usha George Faculty Recognition Award in April for her “sustained leadership, generosity of spirit, kindness, enthusiasm, and collegiality.”

The school has also been able to expand its reach to international academics and institutions. From doctoral students to early career scholars, academics from various countries spent time at DST, looking for a place to advance the conversation, connect with communities and create in shared spaces. In addition, universities in the U.K., such as Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland, are using Ryerson courses like the History of Madness as a model to build their curriculum.

A celebration was held on July 8 to commemorate the anniversary, which included the school’s annual activist lecture, a student awards ceremony (external link)  and an informal reception where former students shared their experiences from the early days of the program. Sandra Phillips, DST ’04, is a graduate from the first cohort of the program.

“I was looking to be surrounded by like-minded people, gain knowledge and grow but also to reignite the passion that I knew was within. The program did that and so much more,” Phillips said. “I not only met and truly engaged with some very influential people, I was able to hone my skills as an activist and develop some relationships that have lasted the 20 years.”

A $500,000 gift from the P. and L. Odette Foundation was also announced at the July 8 event. It will create the Tanis Doe Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Gender, Disability and Social Justice.

The fellowship was spearheaded by Fran Odette, who served on Ryerson’s disability studies advisory council from year one and is a former president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association. The fellowship recognizes Tanis Doe – who taught at Ryerson and who, as a Métis deaf woman with other disabilities, was a Fulbright Scholar and active in disability, queer and feminist movements internationally. Additional support for the fellowship through Ryerson’s Office of Research and Innovation will extend its impact over the next 15 years. The first two-year fellowship will be awarded July 2020. This will be the second postdoctoral fellowship for the school. The first was established by the Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation in 2010.

For those who missed the activist lecture, guest speaker Lydia X.Z. Brown’s talk on Organizing for Terrible Times: Reworking and Resisting captured the changing rhetoric around disability studies. Brown, an Asian American autistic disability justice advocate, organizer and writer, pushed the conversation to include critiques of the whiteness of disability studies, the important influence of critical race studies and the intersectionality in theory and practice.

To watch the lecture, please visit

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