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July 26, 2001

SHRS starts disabilities studies program

Despite some progress for Americans with disabilities in recent years, statistics indicate that they continue to be underserved, confronted with attitudinal and physical barriers and excluded from the mainstream.

A 2000 Louis Harris poll, for example, indicates that 29 percent of disabled Americans currently have a household income of $15,000 or less, and only 32 percent of working-age persons with disabilities are in the workforce.

Pitt has developed a new multi-disciplinary disabilities studies program in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) to help train a variety of professionals to improve the lot of the approximately 43 million Americans with disabilities.

"Historically, people with disabilities have faced ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination," said Miriam Hertz, assistant professor at SHRS and director of the program. "It is of the greatest importance that policymakers and professionals learn how to assist people with disabilities to participate fully and equally in the community."

According to Hertz, disability studies is an emerging academic field with the goal of instructing professionals and scholars from all occupations and disciplines on the knowledge, approaches and skills necessary to improve circumstances for people with disabilities. The field investigates disability in the socio-environmental context and works to improve policy and practice for integration of people with disabilities into the community, she said.

Pitt's program, which begins this fall, will offer a 15-credit graduate-level certificate in the Department of Health Information Management that can be completed in two semesters.

The program includes instruction in psychology, sociology, law, economics, policy and services, and advocacy strategies in the context of physical, sensory and mental disability. Courses from other Pitt schools, such as Pitt law school's The Law of Disability Discrimination and the education school's Disabilities Law and Society, are included in the curriculum. Others will be added as the program expands, Hertz said.

"Disability studies is of obvious use to health scholars, professionals and rehabilitation counselors, but it also will draw people from other professions who work with people with disabilities, including social workers, educators, disability attorneys, vocational counselors," Hertz said. "Scholars from academic fields, including from the social sciences and humanities, will also be interested."

Building on the foundation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which outlaws discrimination against the disabled in employment, services and places of public accommodation, the program leaves the curative and treatment aspects of disablement to instruction in the health sciences, Hertz said.

"Disability studies looks at disability not as medical impairment alone, but more as the product of the interaction between the impaired person and the attitudes of the community and the physical barriers of the environment," Hertz said. "It seeks to educate professionals in the health sciences and other fields on the public ideologies, policies and practices that can best promote integrated and productive lives for people with disabilities. It brings new approaches and tools for improving day-to-day patient or client interactions and outcomes."

According to Katherine D. Seelman, associate dean for governmental and international relations and professor, rehabilitation science and technology at SHRS, "The Pitt/SHRS disability studies program is unique in the U.S. Although approximately eight academic disability studies programs exist, the SHRS program is seated in a school that is training health and rehabilitation science professionals. The program provides these students and faculty with the opportunity to view rehabilitation science from the perspective of the disabled individual."

Before coming to Pitt, Seelman was director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

For further information on the program, contact Miriam Hertz at, or admissions at 412/383-6556.

–Peter Hart

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