American University launches certificate in Disability, Health, and Bodies

Push to open button for automatic doors Photo by Isabelle Kravis
By Isabelle Kravis

Katherine Greenstein walks to class with a pink crutch under each arm. On Dec. 2, they hit the disabled access button outside Mary Graydon Center’s double doors.

Greenstein, a sophomore at American University, is a self-described “disability activist.” And, for the first time, they are able to extend that activism to the classroom.

In Fall 2021, American University launched an undergraduate certificate in Disability, Health, and Bodies, becoming one of the few universities in the nation to offer such a program for undergraduates.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Greenstein

Greenstein is one of the over 61 million adults in the U.S. that lives with a disability, and said that the prevalence of disability is one reason that they decided to enroll in the program.

“As a disabled person, I am an expert in my disability, “Greenstein said. “But disability is not a monolith.”

The certificate program consists of 12 credit hours, with six hours in required “foundation” courses and six in electives. Course options range from mental health and neuroqueerness to neuroethics, and cover six departments at the university.

Tanja Aho, a professor in disability studies who headed the development of the certificate, said that the program mainly grew from student interest in already existing disability studies classes.

“Students very quickly became very interested and wanted to have more content,” said Aho, who hopes the certificate becomes a major.

Photo courtesy of Tanja Aho

Aho said that the main barrier to having a full disability studies program, rather than just the certificate, is the lack of full-time faculty. Currently, Aho is the only full-time faculty member at AU specializing in disability studies, with adjuncts or professors from other disciplines teaching the rest of the courses for the certificate.

“I, as one single faculty member, cannot simply do all the teaching that is required for a certificate in disability studies,” Aho said. “I think that AU, and universities in general, needs to move away from adjunct labor and hire more full-time faculty to offer the courses in subjects that students are interested in like disability studies.”

Both Aho and Greenstein said that they hope the program can grow into something resembling the university’s current program offerings in other subject areas, such as the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, which offers a major and two minors. 

Greenstein specifically mentioned that along with wanting a full disability studies program for students, universities should work to incorporate disability studies into existing general education curricula so that students can be introduced to disability studies without having to enroll in a specific disability studies course.

American University currently requires all students to take a series of classes known as the American University Experience, split into AUx1 and AUx2, taken in the first and second semester, respectively. According to the university’s website, the program “seeks to create a space for conversations and learning about race, social identity, and structures of power.” Despite this, there is no mention of disability in the curriculum for the class.

“We have these required freshman diversity and inclusion classes, but there’s no mention of disability or anti-ableism,” Greenstein said. “If AU, and other universities, want to truly be inclusive they have to start including disabled people in their diversity frameworks.”