“Disabilities are often perceived as a small minority issue—something that affects a mere 1%. That’s not the case,” said Sophie Mitra, Ph.D., co-director of the minor program, founding director of the Research Consortium on Disability, and professor of economics.”
Around one billion people worldwide live with a disability, according to the United Nations, including one in four adults in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the minor started in January 2019, students in the program have learned how disability and normality are understood and represented in different contexts, from literature to architecture to fashion. The curriculum also helps bring awareness to issues of access on Fordham’s campus and beyond.
“Our minor program gets students to think about what it means to have a disability and what the consequences of having a disability might be in society,” Mitra said. “It’s an essential part of thinking about inclusion and what it means to be an inclusive society—and yet, it’s a dimension of inclusion that we sometimes forget about.”
The program is designed to show undergraduates how to create more accessible physical and social environments and help them pursue careers in a range of fields, including human rights, medicine and allied health, psychology, public policy, education, social work, and law.
Among these students is Sophia Pirozzi, an English major and disability studies minor at Fordham College at Rose Hill.
“The biggest thing that I’ve taken away is that when minority rights are compromised, so are the majority … And I think when we elevate that voice and that experience, we come a little bit closer to taking into consideration that the only way to help ourselves is to help other people,” said Pirozzi, who has supervised teenagers with intellectual and physical disabilities as head counselor at a summer camp in Rockville, Maryland. After she graduates from Fordham in 2021, she said she wants to become a writer who helps build access for the disability community.
Now, in addition to the minor program, Fordham has a Research Consortium on Disability, a growing team of faculty and graduate students across six schools—the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Education, the Graduate School of Social Service, the Gabelli School of Business, the Law School, and the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education—who conduct and coordinate disability-related research at at the University.
Since this past October, the consortium has created new opportunities to connect faculty and graduate students working on disability-related research across the University and in the broader New York City area, including lunch meetings and new research studies. This month, it launched its new website. The consortium is planning its first symposium on social policy this November and another symposium on disability and spirituality in April 2021.
The consortium is a “central portal” for interdisciplinary research that can help scholars beyond Fordham, said Falguni Sen, Ph.D., professor and area chair in strategy and statistics, who co-directs the consortium with Rebecca Sanchez, Ph.D., an associate professor in English. That includes research on how accessible New York City hospitals are for people with disabilities, particularly in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What has come to light very acutely is the whole notion of how vulnerable populations have been differentially affected in this COVID-19 [pandemic],” Sen said. “The emergency responses to that population have not necessarily been as sensitive or as broad in terms of access as we would like it to be … And we were already thinking about issues of crisis because of what happened in 9/11.”
The minor and the Research Consortium on Disability build upon the work of the Faculty Working Group on Disability: a university-wide interdisciplinary faculty group that has organized activities and initiatives around disability on campus over the past five years. The group has hosted the annual Fordham Distinguished Lecture on Disability and several events, including a 2017 talk by the commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
“Fordham is known for community-engaged learning and how its work, both the research that we do and others, have relevance directly in people’s lives,” said Sen. “And that’s what we are trying to do.”