Coming to an Understanding

Hockenberry shared his own experience as a paraplegic, the result of a car accident during college.

Two professors bring personal experience to a debut course on how society considers the disabled.

By Christopher Hann

The veteran journalist John Hockenberry is seated in his wheelchair before a classroom of Drew students, talking about how bias against the disabled person is rooted in American culture, going back to the construction of the nation’s proudest works of architecture. They’re beautiful, he concedes, sweeping in their grandeur, even artistic—the noble columns, the grand porticos, the endless stairs.

Yet such transcendent design, Hockenberry tells the class, bespeaks of a time when little thought was given to the needs of anyone who, say, might rely on a wheelchair to get around. “The idea that they would be out in public was just preposterous on its face,” he says. When advocates call for the preservation of these buildings in their original form, he adds, “Part of what you’re preserving, like it or not, is the time when people in wheelchairs weren’t around.”

Hockenberry, who has reported extensively from the Middle East and these days is co-host of The Takeaway, a public radio show airing on WNYC, was one of four guest speakers to lecture to the spring semester class “Current Issues in the Construction of Disability.” James Hala, an English professor and director of the humanities program, and Associate Professor of History Frances Bernstein team-taught the course, the first time it’s been offered at Drew. They explored myriad ways in which cultures have regarded disabilities, from the Nazis’ views on eugenics (borrowed, Hala says, from the United States) to the doctor who advises a woman pregnant with a Down syndrome child that she might want to abort. They showed films, including The Elephant Man, The Station Agent and Million Dollar Baby, the latter of which disability advocates assailed for its portrayal of a quadriplegic who loses interest in life.

Likewise, the professors’ motivations for creating the course went beyond merely the academic. Both have sons with disabilities: Hala’s 16-year-old son, Zach, has Asperger’s syndrome; Bernstein’s 7-year-old son, Louis, is autistic. The professors say their experiences at home were reflected in their broader examination of disabilities. “Obviously, I was looking at this for my own reasons,” Hala says, “but the more I looked at it, the more I realized how much this paralleled every other civil rights issue.”

Bernstein says many students recounted their experiences with the disabled, a development that was not expected but certainly welcomed. “I talked about Louis all the time,” she says. “There were a lot of personal reflections and providing examples from our own lives, but not in any way to detract from the scholarship that we read, which was really sophisticated.”

Both Bernstein (top) and Hala have sons with disabilities, which inform their teaching on the subject.

Hala says his son has been “hugely influential” in shaping his own understanding of disabilities. “That word normal goes right out the window. He is really gifted with language and history,” Hala says of Zach, “but he has a very hard time with social situations. He helps me to look at the world in a different way.”

As part of the course, the 24 students—mostly neuroscience and pre-med majors, many with disabled family members—surveyed accessibility on Drew’s campus, resulting in a study that three students presented to President Robert Weisbuch and his cabinet. The course so inspired Jessica Yuppa, now a sophomore, that she is working to create a student group focused on disability issues.

“We decided we wanted to not only introduce the students to the topic of disabilities studies,” Bernstein says. “We also tried to engage them politically and socially to think more about disability at Drew and beyond. The accessibility study grew out of that.”

In the survey, the students included suggestions for improving access on campus. Bernstein says two of the guest speakers were unable to meet with her and Hala in their “utterly inaccessible” offices.

“What we found,” Hala says, “is that Drew is very willing to make accommodations, but we’re reactive. Someone has to come to us and say, I need accommodations.”

Yuppa, a 19-year-old from Totowa, N.J., had a personal stake in the course: Her 52-year-old mother recently had a foot amputated. Yuppa says the professors and guest speakers expanded her notion of what it means to be disabled. “I was always ready to give pity or sympathy or empathy, but they said no, that’s not what we’re going for here,” she says. “What we should be doing is trying to make a world where everybody can function normally.”

Leave a Reply