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Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Course about autism and product design highlights fall offerings in Disability Studies

– An experimental course in which students will design products for people with autism is being offered this fall at the University of California, Berkeley, and is one of several new classes in the interdisciplinary Disabilities Studies program that critically examine the experiences of disabled people.

Funded by the Cure Autism Now (CAN) foundation, a goal of the small class open to undergraduate and graduate students is to tap the innovative thinking of UC Berkeley students in terms of designing products for people with autism. Other goals are to raise students' awareness about autism and to encourage them to consider careers focusing on autism and disability.

"While a common disorder, autism is not well understood, and there is little being done in the design world to produce tools and products for those affected by it," said instructor Dan Gillette, a specialist at UC Berkeley's Institute for Urban and Regional Design and chair of CAN's Innovative Technology for Autism Workgroup.

Autism is a developmental disability that affects communication and social interaction and is estimated to affect 1 in 166 people. Its symptoms and severity vary widely from person to person.

Gillette said he also will use the course to help develop a standard curriculum about designing products for people with autism that can be used by other universities.

In addition to extensive reading about autism, students will conduct design research in the homes, schools and workplaces of individuals with autism to better grasp their challenges, strengths and needs.

The approximately 20 students in the class will break into groups, and each group will propose a design for a product that could be used by someone with the disability, then create mock-ups and test prototypes. Potential products include games, interactive media, art, household tools and assistive technologies.

In a pilot graduate class co-taught by Gillette last year at Stanford University, students created a prototype of an interactive talking toy for use in an adult social skills program that encouraged social interaction and a chair with weights to provide sensory comfort for autistic children in their homes.

"Because of the difficulties presented by autism, access can be quite limited to education, work and social interaction for individuals with moderate to severe autism," said Gillette. "By exploring how and why such access can become diminished, a better understanding of culture at-large emerges, as well as possible paths for resolving issues of social access."

Other new fall classes in the Disability Studies program include:

"Children, Families and Disabilities"

This class, with an emphasis on disabled women and girls, will be co-taught by Corbett Joan O'Toole. O'Toole is a longtime, internationally influential disability rights activist, a writer, filmmaker and director of the Disabled Women's Alliance, which focuses on networking and advocacy for women with disabilities around the world.

Also teaching the class is Susan Schweik, a UC Berkeley professor of English and co-founder of the disabilities studies program, who said a distinguishing feature of many classes in disabilities studies is a reliance on experts in disability who, like O'Toole, are themselves disabled.

Corbett and Schweik will start the class out with the history of disabled students at UC Berkeley and continue with discussion of issues such as prenatal testing, selective abortion, disabled parents' rights and adaptive technologies for disabled people.

"Disability Autobiography"

Georgina Kleege, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of English, will explore with her students whether autobiographies written by people with disabilities serve as agents for social change - giving non-disabled readers a closer glimpse of the lives of disabled people - or reinforce the idea of disability as personal tragedy that must be overcome.

Students will read a diverse selection of disability memoirs, such as Helen Keller's "The World I Live In," John Hockenberry's "Moving Violations", and others. Kleege herself is the author of the well-known memoir, "Sight Unseen," a collection of her personal essays about blindness, as well as the forthcoming, "Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller."

"Anthropology and Disability"

This course, taught by Devva Kasnitz, founder of the Society for Disability Studies, and Russell Shuttlesworth, approaches disability issues cross-culturally in order to open up questions about what disability is and what it means.

"Introduction to Disability Studies"

The instructor, Marsha Saxton, a UC Berkeley lecturer and researcher with the World Institute on Disability, wrote the section on disabled women's issues for the landmark book, "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Students will explore such issues as medical and insurance systems, employment, attendant services, genetic screening, gender issues, AIDS and HIV, and civil rights statutes relating to disability. They also will learn about disability organizations, services and policies.

"Marsha's classes are honest, they really get down to it," said Schweik. "The topics may seem frightening and painful sometimes, but nothing is taboo. She helps students address these things in a way that's both candid and safe."

While UC Berkeley has long offered disabilities-related courses, their focus in the past was primarily to provide practical training for students going into fields such as medicine and special education. But the Disabilities Studies program places an emphasis on providing courses that critically and analytically examine the lives and historical experiences of disabled people.

The program was established in 2002 by Schweik and Fred Collignon, UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning. It blends offerings from English, architecture, art, film, engineering, public health, political science and other areas and taps the rich resources of disabled activists and artists in the Bay Area. The program also offers fellowships to train advanced scholars to become leaders in disability studies and rehabilitation research, teaching and mentorship.

"Most of our students are non-disabled and, more and more, people realize disability is an issue that will affect them at some point in their lives," Schweik said. "Our courses never lack for students."