Thematic degree: Disability Studies
Paige Lasota is one of those rare individuals who knew since she was in high school what she wanted to pursue as a career one day. Her experience as an aid in special education classrooms deeply resonated with her. “I just knew that was my calling and what I needed to do in life,” she says. During her senior year of high school, Lasota took the first steps in fulfilling that calling. She became a certified Direct Support Professional, caring for and supporting people with disabilities.
For her, the academic and professional goal was always disability studies. While some would view her ambitions as being relatively niche, Lasota never second-guessed her choice. Her story is a testament to what can happen when you commit to a career path and refuse to be discouraged along the way.
Discovering the Inter-College Program
As a freshman at the University of Minnesota, Lasota considered her options. She knew that while the U offered 140+ majors, disability studies was not one of them. She considered how she might adapt to a special education or music therapy major instead. It was during the fall semester of her sophomore year that she discovered the Inter-College Program (ICP) through a friend. “You know you can design your own major, don’t you?” her friend asked. Lasota did not, but she was intrigued by the possibility.
Lasota went to an information session about the ICP major and learned that she could pull from courses offered across the U of M to create a degree that would serve her best. She didn’t need to hear anything more: it was the perfect solution for what she wanted to pursue. Lasota met with her advisor, Karen Moon, and began the work of designing an ICP thematic major that focused on the concept of disability and the impact of that term.
“My degree was so individualized and the experience of designing it was so one-on-one,” Lasota says. “I felt really cared for.”
Lasota took a variety of courses, including special education, psychology, gender and women’s sexuality studies, family social sciences, a directed study, and more. She appreciated how the interdisciplinary nature of her ICP major allowed her to gain a holistic view of disability. “Many people assume there’s something wrong with having a disability, but I don’t see it that way,” she says. “Disability isn’t something to be cured.” Lasota realized that she wanted to share the things she was learning with as many other people as possible.
“My degree was so individualized and the experience of designing it was so one-on-one.”
Learning to understand disability through a variety of lenses, Lasota gained a valuable and unique perspective as a student at the U. It was this unique perspective that, in the spring of 2020, opened up the opportunity for Lasota to participate in the creation of an official disability studies major, minor, and track at the U of M. For her part in developing the major, Lasota compiled a list of disability courses and disability-related and adjacent courses at the U, and a list of potential faculty and collaborators.
“I studied the courses to analyze what ideologies of disability the content was perpetrating—disability-positive is essential,” she says. “I also examined the possibility of transforming existing courses that touched on disability into full-on disability courses.”
Thanks to her dedication and assistance, the U of M is well on its way to offering a disability studies major for other students who may follow in Lasota’s footsteps.
As for Lasota, she completed her degree in the summer of 2020. And best of all, she had a job lined up that would allow her to put that knowledge into practice.
Applying Her Degree in the Real World
Lasota discovered Mad Hatter Wellness as she was doing research on organizations in the Twin Cities that offered services for people with disabilities. A small organization, Mad Hatter offers wellness and sexuality education to people of all abilities and training for families, schools, and communities on how to support people with disabilities. Lasota reached out to the team there and set up an informational interview. That interview turned into an invitation to attend an upcoming advisory committee meeting, which in turn led to a part-time job offer.
“Everything really fell into place. I was pleasantly surprised!” Lasota says. “I started out observing and helping during workshops, and my responsibilities kept getting bigger and bigger. As I was about to graduate, I was offered a full-time position.”
Today, she works as an educator and advocate at Mad Hatter Wellness, specializing in teaching wellness and sexuality education to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She couldn’t have dreamed up a more ideal role for herself.
“It’s been amazing,” Lasota says. “The job I have perfectly encompasses all of my passions, and I get to apply everything I’ve learned in my degree. I spend my time doing what matters most to me: empowering and advocating for the people I teach and provide resources for. Everything that I’ve learned at the U transfers over to my job in one way or another.”
“The job I have perfectly encompasses all of my passions, and I get to apply everything I’ve learned in my degree. I spend my time doing what matters most to me: empowering and advocating for the people I teach and provide resources for. Everything that I’ve learned at the U transfers over to my job in one way or another.”
Lasota has been integral in designing and delivering Mad Hatter’s “Sexuality for All Abilities” curriculum. She and her colleagues provide direct services to community partners, leading workshops and offering learning opportunities for employment services or group homes.
As Lasota reflects on her journey so far, she smiles, looks you straight in the eye, and tells you she’s really happy with how things have worked out. Everything she’s been focused on has been about dismantling barriers that exist in society for people with disabilities. Lasota listened to her calling and found herself in a role that was absolutely ideal. Her career is just beginning.
Paige Lasota is a recipient of the Buchta & Fibiger Scholarship.