Bringing Disability Studies into the classroom: Two critical approaches from Honors Program students

Given the importance of addressing issues related to race, gender, sexuality and culture in educational settings, it can sometimes feel like other aspects of identity, including disability status, get crowded out of the conversation. Two SUNY New Paltz students are looking to change that.

Yonkers, New York, resident Alyssa Albano ’22 (Adolescent Education-English) and Eli Dreilinger ’22 (Adolescence Education-English) of Schenectady, New York, focused their Honors Program thesis presentations on the burgeoning field of Disabilities Studies, working with New Paltz faculty and staff to outline new frontiers for improving teaching at all levels of education.

Albano developed this interest during the “Differentiating Instruction in the Secondary School” course with Assistant Professor of Teaching & Learning April Coughlin. Her presentation, “Everybody Belongs: Disability Studies into the Classroom,” examines how inclusion of students with disabilities in the classroom is necessary.

“This was something that was new and different for me to learn,” she said. “If people with disabilities were included as a minority group, aside from race and ethnicity, they’d be the largest minority group in the United States. I feel like they are underrepresented in education.”

Beyond studying these issues, Albano also developed a teaching resource for herself and other educators: a curriculum that explores the history and literature around disability rights and advocacy.

“I felt like doing a typical research paper was just not enough,” she said. “There’s a ton of research about how to incorporate a disability-related curriculum, but there’s not a lot of resources on how people have actually done it.”

Dreilinger’s project, “How Social Exclusion Impacts the Cognitive Development of Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” was similarly inspired by a desire to change broad public perceptions of people living with disabilities.

“The epiphany I had is that even though exclusion affects everyone differently, people with disabilities are not necessarily affected any differently than people without disabilities,” he said. “It is a very hard-hitting topic, and it affects a lot of people deeply.”

His researched looked at ways in which students with disabilities are frequently isolated in classrooms with others like them, a trend in the American education system that can result in debilitating mental health issues.

“It’s like being stuck in a loop where you can’t get out through it because you feel excluded,” Dreilinger said. “It causes depression because of the internalizing of feelings and symptoms, and it also can cause self-harm and suicidal ideation.”

In his research, Dreilinger cited a study from the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities reporting that 50% of individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability describe themselves as lonely; 33% say they have difficulty making friends; and 25% who say they see family just once a year or less.

In a classroom setting, Dreilinger advocates an inclusive approach to educating students with disabilities.

“The majority of those labeled as having a disability are thrown in these classes,” he said, “when they would thrive in a more inclusive environment, which would allow them to experience diversity in the class.”

Assistant Professor Coughlin, who advised both Albano and Dreilinger on their projects, said that “Alyssa’s work is groundbreaking, transformative and essential to any teacher looking to address the needs of their students,” and that Dreilinger has shown himself to be “readily committed to directly addressing these issues in his own future classroom.”

More information about SUNY New Paltz resources for students with permanent or temporary disabilities is available from our Disability Resource Center.