Classy classes: Human rights class explores disabilities studies

Nov. 15, 2017, 2:34 a.m.

When J.S.D. candidate Doron Dorfman J.S.M. ’14 arrived at Stanford five years ago, he was shocked to find that not a single person at the university identified as a disabilities scholar. This fall, Dorfman introduced a new course called “HUMRTS 104: Introduction to Disability Studies and Disability Rights” to fill the gap.

Classy classes: Human rights class explores disabilities studies
(Courtesy of Sheila Sanchez from
the Diversity & Access Office).

“Stanford needs academic engagement with disability studies,” Dorfman said. “I really want to show that disability studies is an academic field.”

Originally from Israel, Dorfman has been doing work on the intersection between disability studies and law for over a decade. He practiced law in Israel for five years before coming to the U.S.

The course combines the humanities, social science and legal spheres. Throughout the quarter, students study disability history in the U.S., the eugenics movement, psychological processes of creating disability identity, media representation of disability and international law relating to disability.

The content of the course includes a wide range of disabilities such as mental, physical and sensory disabilities as well as chronic illnesses. Dorfman explained that the distinction between impairment and disability is similar to the distinction between sex and gender in gender studies.

“Impairment is the physical, biological, pathological part of the disability and the disability is the social construction part; it’s how people perceive you because of your impairment,” said Dorfman. “Because we look at disability as a cultural issue, as a social issue and as a political issue, we can look at different impairments and talk about all of them in a coherent way.”

Brickelle Bro ’19, one of 27 students enrolled in the class, echoed this belief. Bro herself has both legs amputated below the knee.

I think it’s important for everyone to take this class because you understand, first of all, how all-encompassing disability is; secondly, it’s important to make a world where disability is acceptable, because there’s literally no downside,” said Bro. “I think it’s important to change the attitude around disability so we can hopefully get to that point where disability is acceptable.”

Earlier in the quarter, Dorfman assigned a reading in which a disability scholar used the word “crip.” The derogatory term, short for cripple, has recently been reclaimed by members of the disability community.

“I got some pushback from the students who didn’t love [the use of the term] and were not used to it,” Dorfman said. “I was surprised that there was some reluctance to acknowledge it.”

Dorfman discovered many students had never been exposed to the term, explaining their initial discomfort. Through this experience, Dorfman said he learned not to take advantage of the reclamation of derogatory words.

“I think that doing disability studies as a non-disabled person is a humbling process, because you really need to think very closely about what you say and how you say it and who you represent and how you represent them,” Dorfman said.

Dorfman believes that it is important to bring the voices of disabled communities into the course. Last week, the class went on a field trip to the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. Ed Roberts was a quadriplegic student at UC Berkeley and a pioneer in the Independent Living Movement in the 1960s. Dorfman’s students had the opportunity to speak with activists living with disabilities.

“We heard from a lot of notable people in the field, which was awesome because it was people whose papers we had read,” Ariel Yu ’19 said.

“Disability studies is really a window to learn about society and culture,” Dorfman said. “Looking at the world through a disability prism teaches us about topics like what makes someone human, what qualities are valued in certain cultures, how to define productivity, who gets to be a parent or a lawyer or an athlete … Disability studies is everybody studies.”


Contact Olivia Mitchel at omitchel ‘at’

Olivia Mitchel '21 is a staff writer for the academics news beat. Born and raised in San Francisco, she fell in love with classical piano and various styles of dance at an early age. A biology major on the pre-med track, Olivia plans to complete the Notation in Science Communication.

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