Dr. Robert Kane and many of his colleagues at the University of Minnesota have been pushing for the establishment of a disability studies program for sometime. After a recent conference on disability held at the U, they are hoping that they have generated momentum and support towards that goal.
Exploring various aspects of disability and generating support for disability programs were two of the themes of the Politics of Disability Conference at the U of M in June. About 150 faculty and staff from the U, and professionals and laypersons working in fields related to disability and aging attended.
This conference is the fifth and final one in the President’s Interdisciplinary Conference Series on Disabilities initiated by U President Bob Bruininks and held at the U this past year. Topics in the previous four conferences were disability policy, ethics of disability, economics of disability, and caregivers’ perspectives on disability.
“This conference examined the key factors that affect disability policy and the impact that changes in the political, demographic, and economic environment are likely to have on the future course for such policy,” explained Kane, holder of an endowed chair of the Long-Term Care and director of the Aging Center in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “It also sought to tie policy to action and develop an agenda for change at the state and national levels. The overall theme of the series was to explore various aspects of disability and how do we generate support for disability programs.”
Some of the topics covered included: How do the various disability programs (across types and age groups) potentially compete? How does the rationale for services differ by type age or type of disability?
Beyond the discussions and debates on policy and politics, another main objective of this conference series is to increase discussion about disability issues across the U and between the U and the disability community, said Jake Priester, coordinator of the U of M Center on Aging, one of the sponsors of the series.
Town and Gown
“We want to create discussion between the U and the disability community and stimulate greater cooperation and joint activities between the U and the disability advocacy community in terms of improving disability policy,” Priester said.
Conference organizers also hoped that the series will have the same bridging effect on the various U of M departments that work on disability issues and research. That is especially important because of the effort to establish a disability studies program.
“A lot of faculty and researchers at the U address the issue of disability but they do so in their departments and don’t communicate with each other,” Priester said. “Our job is to bring these people together.”
To that end, both Kane and Priester rated the conference series a success. “We have had good attendance at each of the conferences, more so in the last one with 150 people,” Priester said. “It was a mixed audience with employees and faculty from different departments at the U, government employees as well as people from the disability community.”
“We view this conference and the series as great success,” Kane added. “First, it greatly increased the visibility of disability as a topic worthy of academic exploration. It brought town and gown together around the topic and identified several areas where further collaboration should be fruitful. We hope it will lead to further collaboration between members of the disability community and faculty and staff of the university to pursue policies to make disability services more effective and to find new ways to reorganize them.”
At the U of M, the top item on the agenda is the establishment of a disability studies program. “Having a program will make disability a topic worthy of academic study and provide a focal point both for instruction and research,” Kane said. “We’ve had lots of good discussion. Hopefully the meetings that we have had will move the agenda forward and build more support for a disability studies program,” Priester said.
The President’s Interdisciplinary Conference series is designed to nurture academic work across the disciplines, and to find new connections between the University and the broader community. Sponsors of the conference series are the Center on Aging, the Minnesota Area Geriatric Education Center, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the Center for Bioethics, the Institute on Community Integration and the Office of Disability Services.