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Michelle Jarman

Volume 14 | Number 1 | September 2012

By Pat Wolfinbarger
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Michelle Jarman does more than teach University of Wyoming students about the history of disability rights and the treatment of people with disabilities.

She teaches leadership and advocacy.

An assistant professor, Jarman came to UW in 2007 to help launch an undergraduate minor in disabilities studies offered by the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND), one of just 67 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) in the United States. WIND’s mission is to assist individuals with developmental and other disabilities and their families by promoting and supporting full community inclusion, community membership, independence, productivity and social participation.

“My ultimate hope is that students in the program will feel invested in seeing disability as a social justice issue and in seeing disabilities as part of human variation, not solely as medical problems,” says Jarman.

The undergraduate minor at UW considers disability issues through the social sciences, humanities and health sciences, examining areas such as social justice, politics, medical practices, literature and the arts. Students in the program also learn about the evolution of the disability rights movement, the lives of important disability rights pioneers such as Ed Roberts and Justin Dart and what led to laws such as the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Students also gain real-world experience through practicums that place them with such agencies as ARK Regional Services, the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and Cathedral Home for Children.

“It’s not something they learn about in grade school or high school,” says Jarman, who received the 2011 College of Health Sciences’ Outstanding Teacher Award for her work at WIND.

According to the statistics compiled by federal, state and educational agencies, about one in five Americans live with a disability. That makes disabled citizens the largest minority group in the U.S., crossing racial, ethnic, gender, economic and educational classifications.

The UW minor degree program has grown from two students in its inaugural semester to nearly 40 in 2011, and 20 students have earned minor degrees. By reaching out to other departments on campus and gaining the support of colleagues, Jarman says she’s seen increased student interest in disability studies to supplement their education in other disciplines including special education, engineering, English, philosophy, speech, language and hearing, communication, psychology, women’s studies and social work.

One of those students, Elizabeth Cantalamessa, credits Jarman for opening up an unexpected area of study that has changed her life.

“I discovered the disability studies minor when I enrolled in Michelle’s Gender and Disability class for the diversity requirement,” says Cantalamessa, a senior philosophy major from Houston, Texas. “By the end of the first day, I was almost positive I would minor.”

She adds, “The notion of ablest biases within society is something that sticks with you and comes up in almost every aspect of life.”

Though Wyoming’s small population and far-flung communities present challenges for delivering services for people with disabilities, Jarman says the state’s unique makeup also presents UW students, like Cantalamessa, with tremendous opportunities to make a difference.

“Many of the students in the program will be staying in Wyoming and become leaders in Wyoming,” she says. “There’s still a lot to do to fully integrate people with disabilities into our communities.”

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