William Paterson University first to offer disabilities studies degree in NJ

In response to growing demand, William Paterson University is offering the state’s first-ever bachelor’s degree in disabilities studies.

“There was a call for a major. It was sort of a groundswell of interest from people from so many disciplines,” said Amy Ginsberg, the dean of William Paterson University College of Education.

It’s the first of its kind in New Jersey and among the first 20 undergraduate degree programs like it in the country. The program builds on the university’s disabilities studies minor that launched in 2017.

“It is modeled particularly not to be focused on medical deficit, but to be focused on social constructs, so really focused on all ways in which society impacts the experience of being a person with disabilities,” Ginsberg said.

“It’s the only minority group someone can enter at any time — through accident, through injury, through aging — and we needed to look at that just from a whole bunch of different perspectives because it was just so much broader,” said professor Pam Brillante, program director of Special Education and Counseling at William Paterson University.

According to the CDC, one out of every five adults in the U.S. has a disability, with the rate rising due to increased chronic conditions and an aging population.

To earn the degree, Brillante says it’ll require courses like anthropology, public health, psychology, and kinesiology and study topics like the philosophy of justice and life span development.

“We designed this program intentionally to be interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, and we’re looking at individuals with disabilities through a mental health lens, through a physical health lens, through a community lens,” Brillante said.

Meaning whether you’re studying to work in the field, be a police officer, nurse, or lawyer there’s an application for understanding the realm of disabilities.

“Teacher education majors have just started being required to learn something about individuals with disabilities. So unless you wanted to be a special-education teacher you weren’t exposed at all,” Brillante added.

Sophomore Allison Aranda decided she’ll use it as a double major to help her pursue a career as a speech pathologist.

“When someone has a speech problem they probably have other disabilities,” Aranda said. “And I think about learning about all the disabilities is very helpful.”

“You see it every day. When I go out in public, I think is this wheelchair accessible, or how would it be for people if they’re capable they can actually go out in public and do things,” said sophomore Gianna Geune.

Which is exactly what professors are hoping for. Courses begin in the fall with an option to study online, in person and a hybrid of the two. There’s also an option to study abroad.