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The University of Toledo is starting the nation's first full undergraduate major in disability studies, an interdisciplinary field that already has considerable scholarly interest and graduate options.

A generation or two ago, students interested in disabilities "had to invent our own programs," finding faculty members in various disciplines who had an interest in the subject, said Jim Ferris, the Ability Center of Greater Toledo Endowed Chair in Disability Studies. Creating formal major programs -- which he expects other colleges to do -- will attract more students, and those who go on to graduate study will have a firmer base in the field, Ferris said.

Students are drawn to the field for many reasons, but many have a personal connection to the issue of disability, said Ferris, who has a mobility impairment and also a brother with Down syndrome. Because people with disabilities -- in part because of the scholarly interest -- are more visible today than in the past, more students have a personal connection.

Twenty years ago, he said, when he would ask college classes whether any student had gone to elementary and secondary school with someone with a disability whom they got to know, one or two hands would go up. Today, a large share of the students in these classes have a personal connection that makes them want to learn more because so many more children with disabilities attend the same public schools as other students.

"This formerly cloistered, segregated group of people have become more present in public life," Ferris said. He added that he was particular pleased to see Toledo announcing the program as the United States marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The disability studies major at Toledo will be based on a 21-credit set of required courses. They include an introduction to the field, courses on disability culture and a course on the history of disability in the United States. Students will then select electives from options that include deaf studies, gender and disability, and autism and culture.

The program at Toledo will join minors at such colleges as Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California at Berkeley. Toledo will also continue to offer a minor. City University of New York offers an online bachelor's in disability studies for those who have already completed some course work elsewhere.

The creation of a full major at Toledo is "a big deal," said Lennard J. Davis, a leader in the field of disability studies and a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which offers a doctorate in disability studies.

"I think this puts disability studies in the same category as women's and gender studies, African-American studies, queer studies, and the like," Davis said. "Disability for too long has been the banished sibling of the other identity and diversity groups. And over time, when other minors become majors, disability will be seen as a legitimate and important topic of study. Let's not forget that people with disabilities are the largest minority in the U.S."

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