UC Berkeley launches groundbreaking disability research initiative

UC Berkeley launches groundbreaking disability research initiative 
By Andrea Lampros, University Relations | May 11, 2011

BERKELEY - The University of California, Berkeley - viewed by many as the birthplace of the disability rights movement - today (Wednesday, May 11) announced plans for a sweeping new research initiative that will make the university a worldwide leader in disability studies.

UC Berkeley will create two new faculty positions, including an endowed faculty chair funded by a gift from Colleen and Robert D. Haas, to galvanize and lead the multidisciplinary initiative. Ten faculty members from eight campus units will collaborate on research related to disability, with topics including how people define and respond to disability and the critical areas of technology, education and employment.

"It's meaningful that this is happening here at Berkeley," said Susan Schweik, a UC Berkeley professor of English and associate dean of arts and humanities, who has carried the torch for disability studies on campus for several decades. "Disability studies is a young field, an emerging field, but we were one of the first in the mix."

The research effort will be housed in the Haas Diversity Research Center, which has broadened its programs and mandate as part of the UC Berkeley Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity launched in 2010.

"The only way to address disability issues is holistically," said Michael Dear, professor of City and Regional Planning in the College of Environmental Design and co-director of the research initiative along with Schweik. Dear said that cross-disciplinary research is a hallmark of the research initiative, which also will emphasize collaborations between UC Berkeley and community leaders in the Bay Area.

"The disability rights movement was born in Berkeley and has flourished here," said Gibor Basri, vice chancellor for the Division of Equity and Inclusion. "It's fitting that this campus should continue to advance disability research that benefits the world."

UC Berkeley's involvement in disability rights - in both activist and academic realms - is longstanding.

In the 1960s, Ed Roberts - who became a pioneering disability rights activist - was the first student with significant disabilities to attend UC Berkeley. Using a wheelchair after a childhood bout with polio that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Roberts and other students with disabilities formed a group to advocate for curb cuts and other means of making the campus more accessible. They pressed for services, such as personal attendants, to enable students with disabilities to live independently while attending school.

Roberts went on to form and lead the groundbreaking Center for Independent Living and to be a national advocate for disability rights. The Ed Roberts Campus, a cutting-edge facility in South Berkeley that houses nonprofits and service agencies for people with disabilities, opened in April 2011.

English professor Georgina Kleege, part of the faculty team launching UC Berkeley's disability research cluster, said the campus's effort will honor "the pioneering thinkers and activists who came together on this campus and perpetuate their leadership."

Kleege, who is blind, also noted the significance of including disability studies as a core program of the Haas Diversity Research Center. "Disability issues intersect with multiple areas of research at the heart of the center's work, including health, education and economics, as well as race, class, gender and sexual orientation," she said.

"People think disability happens to an individual or is a medical matter. They don't see it as something akin to culture or as something that shapes an individual's identity in any way but a negative way," Kleege continued. "Just to have disability and diversity in the same sentence is exciting and a big move forward."

Approximately 12 percent of the non-institutionalized U.S. population - some 36 million people - has a disability, according to American Community Survey estimates in 2008. UC Berkeley researchers say that figure is expected to grow as the Baby Boomer population ages, as "non-visible" disabilities such as learning disabilities are recognized, and as poverty continues to undermine public health.

"Everybody at some point in their lives becomes disabled," said Dear. "Being disabled adds another level of marginalization to people who might already be marginalized."

Robert D. Haas praised UC Berkeley for asserting a leadership role in advancing the study of disability. "People with disabilities deserve the same opportunities as everyone else to contribute to their communities and society," Haas said. "I am excited to see that Berkeley now will be a place where professors and students can explore practical and policy solutions for ensuring that people with disabilities are able to live rewarding and successful lives."

Schweik called it "breathtaking" that Haas, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1964, and his wife Colleen saw the importance of disability studies - especially during an economic downturn when, she said, "disabled people often lose" due to funding cuts and shifting priorities. The Haases established a faculty chair in disability studies - one of the few of its kind in the nation - in 2010 just after the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund awarded the campus a $16 million grant for the Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity.  Part of the grant went to support five endowed chairs in the Haas Diversity Research Center.

UC Berkeley's history as a leader in disability issues also includes the launch of the disability studies minor in 2002. At that time, 43 professors, led by College of Letters & Science (L&S) and College of Environmental Design (CED) faculty, worked together to design new undergraduate courses. In addition to L&S and CED, other departments involved with the new research cluster include the UC Berkeley School of Law, College of Engineering, Goldman School of Public Policy, School of Information, Graduate School of Education, and School of Public Health.

Some 30 universities nationwide offer disability studies, with only a few - including the University of Illinois and Ohio State University - offering graduate programs.

The Haas Diversity Research Center, formerly called the Berkeley Diversity Research Institute, was launched by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in 2006 and received a significant boost from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund four years later. In addition to disability, the center investigates critical issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomics in California and nationwide.

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