Masters in Disability Studies - Dr. Jeff McNair


April 01, 2013 - By Sarah O'Keefe

Through the integration of Christian faith comes a one-of-a-kind program that offers a unique perspective into the disabled community. The California Baptist University Masters in Disability Studies online program creates an environment for students of various educational and professional backgrounds to come together and learn about this relevant field. 

Here, Executive Director of National Association of Christians in Special Education and advisor to Joni and Friends, Dr. Jeff McNair as well as CBU's disability studies program director shares about the purpose, faith and challenging nature of this online program. 

What types of students enroll in this program?

Because of the eclectic nature of the Masters in Disability Studies, students come to us with a wide variety of backgrounds. Of course there are those from education and rehabilitation,but also from social work, fine arts and business. Students only need to have a bachelor from an accredited university.  We are also fortunate to have students who themselves have some form of impairment who enroll in the program. This makes discussions particularly rich as people relate their own experience to the material being shared. One of the strongest aspects of this program I would say, are the students that you have the opportunity to study with. Because of the synchronous manner in which classes are offered, you actually get to know those who are with you in your cohort.

Who would you say the program is aimed towards?

The program is aimed toward those who want to make a difference in the world. It is our desire to train leaders who will influence policy (whether government, corporate or church/denomination) with their strong advocacy. We are also looking to develop Christian leaders who will change the Christian church in the world. Historically, the Church has not reflected the example of Christ in its interaction with people who have been devalued by society: particularly persons affected by disability.

How long does a student typically take to finish this degree?

The program is six semesters, including summers, so the program is completed in two years.

As this is a master’s program, what type of bachelor’s degrees do students usually come in with?

Once again, because of the nature of the field, we want people having a wide variety of backgrounds. I have delighted in the wide variety of backgrounds that students have brought to the program. Their study and experience makes discussions very rich.

What are areas that you see a lot of students going into?   

We have students who are working for state agencies, students who apply their learning to teaching, and those who are developing or directing disability ministries for churches or denominations. Others are becoming researchers, working at universities, or developing policy advocacy programs.

Can you elaborate on how the concentrations prepare students for particular fields?  

The master is in disability studies obviously, and there are only two classes that differentiate the concentrations. Students in Disability Ministry, take classes in Pastoral Theology and in Disability Ministry. Those in Policy, take classes in Sociology of Disability and Disability policy.  The culminating research project that all students must complete also assists them to develop their concentration focus.

What are the courses like?

Courses are delivered synchronously, that is we meet weekly together, online, and live.  It is like a regular class where you see and hear your instructor, your fellow students (if they turn their cameras on) and have discussions, etc. The courses are also delivered over a 16 week period. I will admit that there is a lot of work in the courses, so student must understand that they are entering a rigorous program. Because the program is entirely online, students should have familiarity with using the internet.  

Could you highlight one specific course?

One course that I am teaching at the moment, is called DSS 543: Social Role Valorization and Human Supports.  This course takes a very critical look at the philosophy behind and the models used to provide human services to persons affected by disabilities. Authors ranging from Wolfensberger to Foucault to Dorothy Day and others are considered. Students will walk away from this class prepared to evaluate the manner in which people are supported by agencies, be they secular or Christian, as well as being armed with strategies they can use to facilitate change.

Another course is the DSS 503: Introduction to Disability Studies course which is offered the first semester. A typical response from students is that independent of their background, they had no idea about the content delivered. Things they thought obvious, such as the definition of disability, are found to be much less clear. We study the social consequences of disability, often more difficult than the disability itself. We also understand models which inform the way in which people with impairments are perceived. Students exit this class very “fired up” to do something. The rest of the program greatly expands upon this introduction looking at law, philosophy, theology and ethics among other things.

How is faith integrated in the curriculum?

We are unabashedly Christian in our approach. This is one of the true distinctives of the program. A Biblical perspective is evaluated alongside the best of what the secular world has to offer. To our shame, the church has not led the way in this area, however, that is not because a Christian perspective could not be developed. Throughout, students read Christian authors and are encouraged to evaluate what they are studying in the light of faith. There is also one specific class, DSS 520: Current Christian Perspectives on Disability which explores the best of what the Christian world has offered. Students read widely from a variety of Christian perspectives to understand how theology impacts an understanding of God’s plan in disability. This may be the first time such issues have ever been explored in the Christian experience of our students.

Is there anything else you would like to share about this degree program?

As this is arguably the first entirely online master program in Disability Studies, the first such program at a Christian university and perhaps the only master program in Disability Ministry in the world, we recognize we are in a unique place to train leaders for the coming movement within the Christian church and the world. Expectations for students are high. Their culminating experience for the program is to produce a publishable paper and submit it for publication in a professional journal. Of the first graduating class, four students have or shortly will have successfully had their original research published. More are to come.

This exciting program is challenging, with the purpose of creating graduates that are ready to affect change in the lives of individuals, churches and the world over. Be on the cutting edge of your field with a Masters in Disability Studies from California Baptist University

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