Students use undergraduate research to explore disabilities
Laura Beaudet, a junior psychology major, has aspirations for a career in special education. Through her pursuit of a Pathways minor in disabilities studies, she has learned a great deal about herself and the people around her.
Beaudet first heard about the minor as a freshman when her advisor told her about a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science who was looking to start a minor in disabilities studies.
“That’s how I got into contact with Dr. Carolyn Shivers,” Beaudet said. “I met with her a few times my first two years of college to talk about the minor and different career and graduate school opportunities. She eventually asked if I would be interested in research, and I said yes.”
Pathways minors are the standout feature of the new general education program. Although only students entering Virginia Tech in fall 2018 and after are responsible for completing the Pathways General Education requirements, Pathways minors are open to all students, whether in the Curriculum for Liberal Education or the Pathways to General Education Curriculum.
The prospect of working with a professor on undergraduate research was an exciting one for Beaudet.
“My undergraduate research position with Dr. Shivers started in the fall when we looked at the sibling relationship for individuals with Williams syndrome, which involves a microdeletion of chromosome 7. I worked closely with her to create the survey measures and analyze the results,” Beaudet said.
Wanting to make the most of a research experience that was giving her the exposure to the field that she needed, Beaudet pursued the opportunity all year. “In the spring, I continued working on the project with Dr. Shivers while taking her Intro to Disabilities Studies class,” she said. “It was great to take the course while analyzing the results because I could create connections to theories we learned in class.”
Beaudet recently presented a poster about this research for the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference at Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center.
The chance to publish class projects
Meanwhile, senior human development major Madelyn Hart found the disabilities studies minor would give her the chance to publish her own research findings.
“The minor inspired me to do a research project for one of my classes concerning universal design on college campuses,” she said. “I then applied to get it published in hopes to share my work with others … an opportunity I never would have thought about pursuing if I hadn’t had this minor!”
Hart was able to publish “The Importance of Universal Design on College Campuses” in Philologia, an undergraduate research journal published by the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I hope it will educate more people about accessibility here at Virginia Tech,” Hart added.
Like Beaudet, Hart said that she learned of the disabilities studies minor from her advisor after expressing an interest in working with students with disabilities. She said that although her career trajectory and academic focus have shifted since she started at Virginia Tech, the minor is still useful for her.
“I initially picked this minor because I planned to become a speech therapist,” Hart said. “Now, I am thinking about pursuing student affairs or higher education, but no matter what job I pursue or where I find myself later in life, being educated on disabilities issues matters. This minor has taught me how to consider the needs of people with disabilities and how to incorporate those needs into how I interact with all types of people.”
For every major, every professional, every person
According to Shivers, assistant professor of human development and director of the minor, one of the key goals of the minor is to prepare students to work with and for a variety of people, whether directly or through the products and systems they design.
“We cover not only better-recognized disabilities, like paraplegia or blindness, but the entire spectrum of disability, including physical, intellectual/developmental, and psychiatric disabilities,” Shivers said. “I like to say that the minor can be beneficial for anyone, because we all interact with individuals with disabilities throughout life.”
“This minor has really emphasized to me the need to recognize the experiences of those with disabilities and to become an advocate in different ways,” said Hart. “For example, there is an online barrier report form that Virginia Tech students and community members can fill out when they see a barrier around campus, such as a push button not working, a broken elevator, or a blocked disabled parking spot, or ramp. I have filled out the form several times from my own observations and have encouraged others to do so as well.
“Although those barriers do not affect me personally, we still need to make sure our campus is as accessible as possible for those that need it,” Hart added. “After all, the chance of someone having at least one disability throughout their lifetime is almost certain, especially as we age.”
About disabilities studies at Virginia Tech
Based in the Department of Human Development and Family Science within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the disabilities studies minor is gaining in popularity, with about 40 students currently registered. Its curriculum includes courses in human development; apparel, housing, and resource management; psychology; science, technology, and society; and education. The program provides students with a multidisciplinary view of how disability is defined and what barriers to full inclusion thatindividuals with disabilities may encounter.
The introductory course, HD 1134: Introduction to Disabilities Studies, is also a Pathways General Education course. While students are drawn to the class to complete Pathways requirements in the core concept areas Critical Thinking in the Humanities and Critical Analysis of Equity and Identity in the United States, it also serves as the gateway to the minor for many students.
“I’m meeting with more interested students every week,” said Shivers. “I’ve had quite a few students in my introductory course sign up for the minor based on what they’ve learned and experienced in the class. What I hear quite often from students is ‘I never thought about this before,’ which is so true when we think about the experiences of disabled individuals. Nondisabled people often have no idea the variety of barriers and challenges — whether physical, emotional, or societal — that people with disabilities face.”
“I recommend this minor for anyone planning on working in human services,” Hart said. “We likely encounter people with disabilities every single day, visible or not.” Aligned with the Virginia Tech Principles of Community and in the spirit of Ut Prosim(That I May Serve), Hart said, “Every single professional should know how to consider the needs of those with disabilities, and this minor definitely helps with educating us and further promoting an accepting environment for every single person.”
About Pathways Minors
Currently, 18 Pathways minors have been approved, with more than 300 students enrolled to date. These minors include biodiversity conservation; blue planet; civic agriculture and food systems; community systems and engagement; data and decisions; disabilities studies; ecological cities; event and experience management; global business practices to improve the human condition; global food security and health; innovation; language sciences; organizational leadership; pathways to sustainability; philosophy, politics, and economics; strategic communication; science, technology, & law; and visual arts and society.
“Students in Pathways minors are able to explore a topic of interest like sustainability or the arts or data from multiple perspectives with a variety of tools and frameworks in multiple contexts, while completing program requirements along the way,” said Stephen Biscotte, director of general education. “So far, Pathways minors seem to be a big hit with students and faculty alike.”
Written by Rachel Kinzer Corell