“From Ableism to Empowerment: Increasing Disability Awareness” Event

Katie Reed, Staff Writer

On Friday, April 1 at 3 p.m., Christa Bialka, Ed.D., the Director of the Department of Education and Counseling and an Associate Professor of Special Education, hosted an event entitled “From Ableism to Empowerment: Increasing Disability Awareness” in Room 215 of Tolentine Hall. She was introduced by Irene Kan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Studies. 

Bialka was thrilled by the number of people who attended the event, especially with it being on a Friday afternoon and the day before the highly anticipated Final Four game.

“I am so appreciative that there are so many people who are interested in hearing more about disability awareness,” Bialka said. “People have a lot of different demands on their time, and I feel overwhelmingly supported.”

The term empowerment is important for Bialka, as it allows people to have more conversations about disability and leads to greater inclusivity of people with disabilities.

“What I want to give you today are tools for you to think about disability in ways you may not have before,” Bialka said. “I think, in line with some of the research, a lot of people are hesitant to talk about disability because they don’t want to be offensive. My aim is to empower people with the tools to function as allies and self-advocates and to move people from feeling hesitant to feeling confident.”

She accomplished this through discussing the language that we use when we talk, or don’t talk, about disability and the implications it has for how disability is thought of and stigmatized in our society. She was able to use her research in K-12 and higher education to inform this presentation and offer strategies for reducing the stigma around disability.

At the beginning of her presentation, Bialka implored audience members to “think back on moments when you might have been unsure how to talk about disability,” mentioning how we are socialized to think about disability in ways that reinforce stigma. This aligns with many standard educational experiences as well, where disability was not often included in classroom conversations. These experiences also underscore the history of disability rights, which is intersectional in nature and aligns with the civil rights movement.

Bialka mentioned how the longest- standing model for talking about disability is the medical model, which is the basis for much of the special education training that people receive. This model, according to Bialka, posits that “disability is a fixed condition,” and it “suggests that it is the person’s job to fit into society, that they should change.” 

She explained that it is important to move toward a social model to reframe how we think and discuss disability, demonstrating how the world needs to be more accessible for disabled individuals, as opposed to those individuals having to adapt to an inaccessible world.

“[The social model] is not saying that human difference doesn’t exist, what it’s saying is that these differences have become exacerbated because of the ways society is constructed,” Bialka said. “It’s okay to recognize that the world is set up for people without disabilities, but what we try to avoid are language and systems that separate.”

To further highlight this point, Bialka included a quote from TikTok user Crutches & Spice (@crutches_and_spice), who uses her platform for disability advocacy.

“Hey disabled people, stop confusing what your body can and cannot do with the obstacles put in your place by society,” Crutches & Spice said.

Demonstrated by how the language in both the medical and social models has implications for the way people with disabilities are positioned in society, language plays a key role in disability awareness, something Bialka highlighted as a key takeaway from the presentation.

She addressed if the word “disabled” is offensive, explaining that there are two ways to talk about someone with a disability. Person-first language centers the person with a disability in the dialogue, an example being “I am a person with a disability.” Identity-first language recognizes being disabled as an identity that can help to celebrate disability pride, with an example being “I am disabled.” Bialka pointed out how different people have different preferences, so in the same way you would ask someone what their pronouns are, you would ask someone whether they would prefer to use person-first or identity-first language in reference to disabilities.

Additionally, Bialka talked about disability invisibility, which entails using language that glosses over disability, thereby ignoring the historical oppression and exclusion that people with disabilities have encountered. Bialka provided examples of this through Sophie Butler, who is also a disability advocate on social media, including “I don’t even see you as disabled” or “You’re not disabled, you’re beautiful.” Bialka mentioned that although this language is coming from a place of trying to be kind, it implies that beauty and disability cannot coexist, which further reinforces the stigma attached to disability.

In addition to language, disability is not always visible, including mental health, Autism and chronic health conditions, which also impact the way disability is talked about.

“Oftentimes there’s so much stigma around mental health and other elements of invisible disability, and people don’t talk about it a lot,” Bialka said. “The more we talk about it, the more we remove stigma, and the more we destigmatize people’s experiences.”

For those who could not attend the event, Bialka implores all to think about how “disability can touch on every facet of human life” in addition to “all of the ways our lives can intersect with disability, the messages we receive about disability, and how we can function as critical consumers of this information.”

“Villanova students in general are so deeply invested in disability as it relates to service,” Bialka said, mentioning student organizations such as Special Olympics and LEVEL. “Villanova is a service-oriented community, but it’s helpful to think about disability through the lens of identity.”

At the end of her presentation, Bialka mentioned that in the Fall of 2022, the University is launching a new Disability and Deaf Studies minor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, open to all students. Within the minor, there are two tracks one can take: either disability or Deaf studies, with each having two to three required courses and around three elective courses. Many of these courses align well with many University core requirements.

“The aim of the minor is to raise awareness around disability and Deafness as minoritized, intersectional identities and to provide an academic orientation to the service experiences that Villanova students already participate in,” Bialka said. “I think launching the minor is a huge step, it shows the University is invested in raising awareness about disability on campus. I feel very affirmed by that.” 

Bialka is excited to see how the offering of this minor will help to guide discourse on disability at the University.

“I look forward to seeing how this becomes a more substantive part of our conversations and our curriculum at large,” Bialka said. “My hope is that we can continue and expand those offerings of disability courses in the future and think about how disability intersects with all subject areas here on campus.”