Critical Disability Studies

The CDSC is often asked to provide a definition for Critical Disability Studies (CDS). We can appreciate a need for a shared understanding of the lexicon. We also appreciate that CDS is a dynamic, interdisciplinary field of study with many divergent entry points. The definitions provided on this page are intended as a starting point for folks who are new to CDS. We are not presuming expertise, but are rather inviting folks into conversation. This information is far from complete; we welcome suggestions for further additions and/or revisions.

What is Critical Disability Studies?

Critical Disability Studies (CDS) is an approach that centers the understanding of disability as a political, cultural, and historical experience. CDS analyzes how society teaches us to think about disability and ability, and how those thoughts turn into actions that so-often negatively impact the lives of disabled people. CDS is not the study of disabled people. CDS offers a method for questioning how systems of power operate. It is a critique of social norms and social structures that stigmatize certain bodyminds and populations (Minich).

In CDS, disability is understood as intersecting and interwoven with other systems of power and oppression. This means that when we talk about issues related to disability, we must always consider how race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship are also connected. CDS is not only an academic endeavor. It has deep connections to disability justice activism, community scholarship, and grassroots organizing. CDS is often based in the humanities and/or social sciences, but most CDS is interdisciplinary. This means that CDS often blurs the lines between academic fields of study.

CDS expands on “traditional” disability studies in many ways. It also differs from “traditional” disability studies in many ways. Some examples include:

  • Traditional DS often proposes a “rights-based” framework as the answer for disability-relationed injustices and inequalities. CDS questions this framework, critiquing the State one of the leading perpetrators of violence toward marginalized people.
  • Traditional DS has historically focused on physical disabilities and the need for physical access. CDS acknowledges that these are important and also raises questions about non-apparent disabilities: cognitive disabilities, intellectual disabilities, chronic health/illness/pain, and mental health disabilities.
  • Traditional DS is more likely to be “subject-oriented,” providing important and valuable work on disabled people’s experiences, histories, culture, etc. CDS is more likely to use disability as an analytic or way of looking at something.
  • Traditional DS has historically struggled with developing intersectional analysis (Bell). CDS is rooted in intersectionality.

NOTE: There is value in both approaches and the lines between “traditional” and “critical” DS can be blurry. Perhaps what matters most is the quality and ethics of the scholarship.