Why the Rehabilitation Profession Needs Disability Studies

Vocational rehabilitation was created to serve the needs of men injured in combat in the first and second World Wars and to serve the needs of men injured in industrial accidents. Except for the remarkable efforts of the National Colored Women’s Association, which created job training and housing for African-American women in the late 19th Century, there has never been a vocational rehabilitation system created to meet the needs of women. Not all men had their needs met either. For example, African-American combat veterans were not given the same benefits as their white counterparts.

Although vocational rehabilitation as a profession challenged the medical model in that it posited disability as a barrier to employment rather than as the end of employment, it never really succeeded in its mission. Indeed, it took the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 to bring the epic levels of unemployment of people with disabilities to national attention. The ADA, of course, would never have surfaced without a Disability Rights Movement. Although vocational rehabilitation professionals were allies in the passage of the ADA, they cannot be recorded as the leaders, the innovators in the movement toward quality lives for people with disabilities.

Even within the rehabilitation profession, the fact that the Disability Rights Movement emerged roughly at about the same time as the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement is rarely recalled, or even known. People with disabilities were closing down federal buildings, creating independent living centers, and protesting on college campuses. When women and minorities did the same thing, all sorts of things happened in higher education. Services for minority and women students emerged in equal opportunity programs and centers. Africana, Hispanic, and Women’s Studies emerged as new academic disciplines. The question is what happened to the logical emergence of Disability Studies? Why didn’t it follow along with the rest of the revolutionary pressures of the 1960s and 1970s?

My hypothesis is that just as the potentially revolutionary aspects of vocational rehabilitation were subsumed by the medical establishment, vocational rehabilitation suppressed the emergence of a revolutionary disability rights movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government offered stipends to graduate students in rehabilitation counseling programs. This had the deceptively benign effect of grabbing off the best and brightest people with disabilities and engulfing them in the profession of vocational rehabilitation, a profession beholden to the medical/legal establishment.

The medical model creates disability as disaster, as something to be fixed – no matter the cost to the person involved – as a thing to be conquered. For this reason, vocational rehabilitation with its roots deeply embedded in workers’ compensation systems, state departments of rehabilitation services, Social Security, and the Veteran’s Administration can never be a force for change since there is too much to give up. Having persons with disabilities administer these programs gives them credibility and extends their longevity.

Without a Disability Rights Movement and Disability Studies in higher education, the experience of disability as seen through the lens of the person with the disability can never be understood or even explored. The person with the disability will always be seen as other and persons who happen to be women and/or members of a minority group will be further distanced as alien others.

And just as Women’s Studies is not the study of women’s reproductive organs, Disability Studies is not the study of medical/psychological/legal definitions of porno disability. Both subscribe to standpoint theory. That is, you cannot understand my experience unless you look at it from my point of view.

Finally, the rehabilitation profession needs Disability Studies to revitalize itself as a profession, as an academic discipline. Without Disability Studies, the field will never realize its potentially revolutionary power.