The Importance of Critical Academic Discussions from a Disability Studies Lens in Higher Education


Labiba Nawar


Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Corresponding Author

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to

Email: Labiba Nawar


In the final year of my undergraduate degree in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies (CRDS), I did a 260-hour (one academic year) practicum as a peer mentor for 1st-year CRDS students at the University of Calgary. Early in my practicum, I discovered students lacked exposure to people with disabilities and discipline of Disability Studies. Introducing a critical academic discussion section in the tutorial sessions of the courses Disability in Theory and Everyday Life (CORE 209) (Fall 2020) and Introduction to Community Rehabilitation Practice & Professional Conduct (CORE 207) (Winter 2021), encouraged students to critically discuss how existing policies surrounding current world issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic affect people with disabilities. A higher education strategy in disability studies implementing mentored practicum reflections on critical academic publications is explored as an approach that might enhance students to be more aware, empathic, and engaged with the world around them. Hopes for improved future disability-based policymaking are proposed.


disability studies, academic discussions, peer mentorship, undergraduate studies, COVID-19, policy making, higher education


In my final year as a Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies (CRDS) student at the University of Calgary, I completed a 260-hour practicum as a peer mentor over two academic semesters, supporting and supervising 1st-year students in the CRDS program. I mentored, designed, and conducted weekly tutorial sessions for students across two lecture sections for the courses Disability in Theory and Everyday Life (CORE 209) (Fall 2020) and Introduction to Community Rehabilitation Practice & Professional Conduct (CORE 207) (Winter 2021). The nature of the courses encouraged me to interact with the students differently, with CORE 209 being theory-focused and CORE 207 being practicum-focused. The tutorial sessions were a means for peer mentors to connect with the 1st year students. It generated many critical academic discussions on disability studies, accessibility, and the impact of existing public policies on people with disabilities.

Through these tutorial discussions, I learned from many first-year students that disability and disability studies were rarely discussed in high school. The students acknowledged that the classroom separation created by the education system, meant they rarely interacted with their disabled peers. The students also mentioned there is a lack of formal education related to disability studies in the Canadian high school curriculum and that the CRDS undergraduate program was the first time they were exposed to this discipline. Upon discovering the lack of exposure, I decided to take a different approach to the tutorial sessions of the courses CORE 209 and CORE 207. Aside from the usual course-relevant tutorial assignments, I separated a section of the tutorial sessions to host critical academic discussions with the students on disability advocacy, policymaking, accessibility, and real-life application of disability theories discussed in the courses. Throughout the academic year, discussions explored the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities and addressed problems in the existing policymaking approach. The view was that the government's current COVID-19 policymaking approach failed to exclusively recognize people with disabilities and their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown plans. One student stated, "the government almost seems uninterested to hear the perspectives of people with disabilities and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their lives. If anything, people with disabilities are arguable the most affected by COVID-19 health and lockdown policies." Many students agreed to this argument and voiced the view that people with disabilities are unfortunately less prioritized in policymaking. The conclusion was that government shows little to no interest in accommodating existing policies to the needs of people with disabilities.

Student discussions of recent publications included recent reports on the fact that over 1 billion people worldwide currently live with a disability, and amongst the population greatly affected by the pandemic, the disability community is overrepresented and reported that COVID-19 caused drastic changes in people's lives with physical disabilities. Many community members already face barriers such as access to appropriate healthcare services and community mobility (Armitage & Nellums, 2020). On top of the existing barriers, the pandemic poses additional challenges such as access to food, medication, and personal care due to government-enforced lockdown plans. The accumulation of daily challenges also leaves this population vulnerable to mental illnesses such as depression (Lebrasseur et al., 2021). As the discussions progressed, students were encouraged to use academic literature and evidence to back up their arguments with their peers in the small group activities. By hosting critical academic discussions in the small group setting, each student gathered more evidence to support and strengthen their small group critique of government policy making and its impact on people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Importance of Critical Academic Discussions from a Disability Studies Lens

Discussion-based learning is one of the most efficient methods of increasing academic collaborations. Zulfiqar (2018) describes critical thinking as "the foundation of strategic thinking, creative thinking, good judgment, and good decision making." Critical thinking can therefore allow students to have clear, rational, and independent discussions supported with evidence and academic literature on burning topics with their peers, peer mentors and instructors (Zulfiqar, 2018). Additionally, critical academic discussions improve analytic, assessment, and bias reconstruction skills (Zulfiqar,2018). I observed the students' thought processes throughout my practicum as they transitioned from CORE 209 to CORE 207. During critical academic discussions in CORE 209, students typically held a medical model bias that informed their understanding and discussions about accessibility concerns for people with disabilities.

The students' thought process in CORE 209 are affected by personal biases due to most of them being fresh out of high school, with some students expressing that they had little to no prior exposure to people with disabilities. One student stated, "In my culture, people with disabilities are often seen as being burdens. Unless you have someone (with disability) within your family or a close friend, people rarely go out their way to be human rights advocates for their disabled community members. It is disheartening to see, and I am sad to say that I unconsciously held a similar mindset for a long time. I never really went out of my way to reach out to my community's disabled population." However, one student and I had a second discussion in CORE 207 after completing practicum, and said their views were completely changed after working directly with people with disabilities. They witnessed the day-to-day lived experiences of people with disabilities of different cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This exposure also taught them the importance of person-centered care and how individual needs are related to their culture and tradition.

The student's experience working with people with disabilities aligns with the Naylor et al. (2020) concept of social global awareness. Social global awareness is a learning strategy that encourages the active practice of obtaining relevant knowledge about cultural, political, ethical, economic, social, and environmental issues affecting people worldwide (Naylor et al., 2020). In the context of disability studies, social global awareness helps to critically explore how issues can impact people with disabilities. Throughout my practicum, the critical academic discussions addressing the COVID-19 healthcare policy issues and government ignorance of the daily needs of people with disabilities have unintentionally been overlooked. The critical academic approach to discussions taught me that students have limited exposure to getting to know people with disabilities, let alone social inequities, before attending university. Many students expressed that their fellow peers with disabilities were often isolated into separate classrooms from the rest of the school during their time in high school. Unfortunately, this limited exposure led the students to "forget" about their peers with disabilities. Many of the students experienced interaction with the ‘disabled community’ for the first time through their first-year practicums. Some reported that these interactions shattered their pre-existing beliefs and opinions about people with disabilities. As stated by a CORE 207 student, "I had always had a medical model approach when it came to understanding people with disabilities prior to CRDS. I assumed medical intervention could provide the best support to people with disabilities. However, all those perspectives were completely shattered as I did my practicum for CORE 207. I quickly learned that disability comes in all shapes and forms. Medical intervention is not the only way to support the disabled community. They are people just like us. Their disability is part of them but does not make them any less human than us able-bodied people. My interactions with the members of this community shifted me to think more critically about my past perspectives and learn to accept, understand and appreciate the importance of the social model approach to disabilities."

Such examples suggest that it is important to recognize the value of practicing social global awareness and how crucial it is to higher learning and the development of critical thinking amongst undergraduate disability studies students. It invites students' to open their eyes to how everyday decisions in their own lives can impact people's lives locally and on a global scale. Therefore, critical academic discussions that utilizes social global awareness can greatly increase one's ability to understand, respect, and work well with people from diverse communities, cultures, and disabilities (Naylor et al., 2020).

Applying Conceptual Models

While increased exposure to people with disabilities can allow students to understand the community better, translating the observed lived experiences to help policymakers pose a challenge. The societal perception of people with disabilities as "other" can lead to oppression of the disabled community. Consequently, adequate healthcare, economic, social, and communal support becomes difficult for individuals of this community to obtain (Carter, Quaglia, & Leslie, 2010). One way to explain these inequities is to help students recognize the power that the oppression model, described as a staircase built from objectification leads to oppression.

Figure 1 demonstrates the different steps and how each step contributes to the steps above it. For instance, "stereotypes can lead to prejudice (negative, or stigmatized stereotypes), which leads to discrimination (unjust allocation of resources, voice, and democratic participation on the basis of group membership – such as disability, gender, class), which leads to systemic or institutionalized oppression (discriminating practices built into the very structure of society)" (Thesen, 2005, p.49). Although the oppression model commonly informs critical race theory, the model can also be applied to critical disability studies. In COVID-19 policymaking, people with disabilities become "others" and become almost invisible to the dominant society. This thinking results in the disabled community receiving little to no recognition of the additional challenges faced due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, almost as a side effect, members of the community may start to internalize the dehumanizing discrimination, creating potential situations for the members of the community to be objectified and stereotyped, which can ultimately take the form of oppression (Thesen,2005) (Carter, Quaglia, & Leslie, 2010).

Figure 1: The Oppression Model (Thesen, 2005)

Thesen (2005) stated that the oppression model could be negatively influence health care professionals. Unfortunately, the model may also influence other professionals who work with people with disabilities. As an alternative strategy to the oppression model, Thesen (2005) proposed the empowerment track. This strategy utilizes the structure of the oppression model and introduces opposites to the foundation and steps of the oppression model. Figure 2 demonstrates the empowerment track in which the first step is acknowledgment which is “understood as fundamental respect for the experiences of “the other” in a subject-subject relation. The following steps recognize the diversity and a stance of positive regard. Final steps represent ideas of solidarity and empowerment (Thesen, 2005). Introducing the empowerment track as a strategy and a positive resource for students in disability studies practicums, to encourage students to develop unbiased perspectives of the disabled community and enrich their experiences working with them. It can help support meaningful and bias-free arguments for critical academic discussions along with being an excellent resource to disability-related advocacy and policymaking activities.

Engagement with people

Many students mentioned that engaging people with disabilities in the COVID-19 response plans throughout our weekly discussions is important. Direct engagement can bring attention to the daily challenges faced by the disabled community as it can be a great resource for government policymakers to generate policies and invest in effective communication methods to translate the policies accurately and clearly to the disabled community. Using plain language, sign language, or other forms of physical or verbal communication to accommodate those requiring a special communication format would be very beneficial in reinforcing COVID-19 response plans (Armitage & Nellums, 2020). Policymaking should be targeted to make things more accessible and transparent. Information should be delivered in a timely manner to people with disabilities who require extra support or measures to ensure adaption to public health policy. Additionally, for effective COVID-19 policymakers who attend to the diversity model would be beneficial as the model acknowledges shared and unique experiences of groups of people from multiple cultural or societal identities such as disabilities, ethnicity, age, and/or socioeconomic status. (Carter, Quaglia, & Leslie, 2010)

Figure 2: The Empowerment Track (Thesen, 2005)

Disability Studies, COVID-19 and the Trends within Academic Publications

After conducting multiple literature searches to observe the trends in academic publications between Sept - January 2021, limited results were obtained on COVID-19, education, people with disabilities, and policymaking. Turk and Mcdermott (2020) report that publications of COVID-19's impact on the disabled communities are starting to emerge.

The lack of interdisciplinary academic research that focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities showcases the gap in interactions between academia and people with disabilities. Academic research is one of the crucial first steps to policymaking as many policymakers rely upon academic work to support the creation of certain policies. Therefore, the lack of publications focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities hinders targeted policymaking to support people with disabilities. Research is also crucial to constructing critical academic discussions within undergraduate classrooms as students are expected to support their arguments using evidence and academic publications. I

In CORE 209, students were required to analyze academic literature to support discussions related to Disability and Media, History of Disability advocacy, and many more similar topics. However, students found that evidence and academic literature to support their arguments for the critical academic discussions was challenging, in relation to COVID-19 and people with disabilities as research and publications were limited on those topics (between September 2020 to January 2021).


Student courses in disability studies should explore current disability-related world issues more extensively to provide multiple perspectives. In addition, the development of higher learning strategies such as reflective academic publications on CRDS practicum experiences is beneficial to increasing meaningful and targeted advocacy and encouraging evidence-based critical academic discussions. These higher learning strategies can encourage disability studies students to challenge their thinking about disabled people both personally and societally. I have concluded that practicum-based reflective academic publications open doors for more conscious critical academic discussions and have the potential to support evidence-based decisions surrounding disability-related policymaking.

Challenging society's existing beliefs on people with disabilities is important. To maximize support for all demographics affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial for government and policymakers to factor in the perspectives of people with disabilities. The discipline of disability studies plays a vital role in generating interdisciplinary research that may inform policymakers. Promoting an academic environment that allows students to critically reflect on various world issues that help initiate actions that amplify the voices of the disabled community. Implementing higher learning strategies such as critical academic discussions strengthened by practicum-based reflective academic publications and social global awareness may help increase targeted and meaningful advocacy for people with disabilities. Educating undergraduate disability studies students to become more aware, empathic, and engaged in rejecting the oppression hold potential.


Armitage, R., & Nellums, L. B. (2020). The COVID-19 response must be disability inclusive. THE LANCET Public Health. doi:

Carter, I., Quaglia, C., & Leslie, D. (2010). Enriching Social Work Through Interdisciplinary Disability Studies. University of Windsor - School of Social Work, 124-130.

Hutchison, P., Arai, S., Pedlar, A., Lord, J., & Whyte, C. (2007). Leadership in the Canadian Consumer Disability Movement: Hopes and Challenges. International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation, 6(1). Retrieved from

Naylor, R., Dollinger, M., Mahat, M., & Khawaja, M. (2020). Students as customers versus as active agents:conceptualising the student role in governance and quality assurance. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-13. doi:

Lebrasseur, A., Fortin-Bédard, N., Lettre, J., Bussières, E. L., Best, K., Boucher, N., Hotton, M., Beaulieu-Bonneau, S., Mercier, C., Lamontagne, M. E., & Routhier, F. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on people with physical disabilities: A rapid review. Disability and health journal, 14(1), 101014.

Turk, M. A., & McDermott, S. (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic and people with disability. Disability and health journal, 13(3), 100944.

Thesen, J., (2005). From oppression towards empowerment in clinical practice – offering doctors a model for reflection. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 33(66_suppl), 47–52.

Zulfiqar, A., (2018). The importance of teaching critical thinking to students. Pearson TalentLens

Butler, H., Pentoney, C., & Bong, M.P. (2017). Predicting real-world outcomes: Critical thinking ability is a better predictor of life decisions than intelligence. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 25, 38-46. DOI:


International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 19, Student Perspectives
ISSN 1703-3381