Ableism and the Academy: What College Has Taught Me About My Disabled Body

This piece was originally published on on October 12th, 2015. 

The author at Warner Bros. Studio.

At Warner Bros. Studio in London, where they filmed the Harry Potter movies. 

I am living out a wild fantasy in the photo above: I’m standing on a piece of the Harry Potter film set during a vacation from my time as an American undergraduate student. And not just any piece, but the bridge from the castle to the outer Hogwarts grounds, where many important conversations and moments in the *film* series take place (!).

Now, if you look closely at the picture, you’ll see my left hand curled inside my coat. You won’t be able to tell that my left ear doesn’t function. What you cannot see are the years of therapy, thousands of dollars, and countless hours spent at and in hospitals, or the psychological toll of my disabilities.

I imagine what it must be like to meet me in person. You see my left hand/arm hanging close to my side, and maybe you notice that I walk with a limp, as my left leg is also affected by Cerebral Palsy. And maybe if you strike up a conversation with me in a crowded place, you will realize that I’ll need information repeated, or that I’ll need you to sit to the right of me so that I can speak with you properly.

No one knows how to approach it, especially since I do not use a wheelchair, hearing aid, or any other signifier that communicates my Otherness. But as I have evolved throughout my collegiate experience, I’ve realized just how much my disabled body has shaped that experience: specifically, I’ve observed just how others see, think about, and react to me being in space, which has led me to the sad realization that my body will always be a barrier. It is a barrier for colleagues, for friends, for students and professors — populations who often seek to remedy disability by way of technology, rather than personal inquiry or relationship building.

Campus Life

Black and white universal symbol of access painted on concrete.

Photo CC-BY UnknownNet Photography, filtered.

When I was in high school, I mostly thought about accessibility in terms of the technology made available to me so that I could keep pace with my peers. I had an AlphaSmart in elementary and middle school because we discovered that typing was easier for me than writing — but that isn’t to say that I couldn’t write. Yet, that didn’t stop a new case manager in high school from insisting that I needed a one-handed keyboard, pulling me out of class many times to test the thing; after my case manager realized that I could type just fine — with both hands — she let the issue drop, albeit with a look of surprise and skepticism on her face.

Flash forward a few years, and I am in the Disability Student Services Center of my alma mater, preparing to enter college with a fraction of the services created to meet the accessibility needs I had in place throughout my K-12 education. “Why do you need extra testing time?” was the question, over and over again. “Well,” I replied, “I get fatigued from writing more easily than others…but I don’t use it often. I mainly use it for in-class essays.” My case manager nodded a few times, her lips a thin line, before saying “OK,” with the same look I received from my high school case manager.

During my four years in undergrad, I needed to utilize the extra time once, on an in-class essay for a 200-level English course.

I should be able to use the technology and resources available to me when and if I want to. No one should tell me how to navigate my body. But when I got to college, I was disappointed to find that my belief in college as a time for people to be themselves, and for others to respect and accept that, was misguided. If I had a nickel for every time I have been looked at scathingly for taking the elevator up one floor, I would probably have enough money to make one loan payment. I was once laughed at by a colleague for stating that I wanted a tricycle so I can be independent on my current campus, which offers little to no public transportation. My interactions with fellow students and colleagues have been, and continue to be, littered with ableist thinking, almost comically so:

“Why do I need to use the microphone?”

“We didn’t even think of how you’d get around on campus!”

Series of tweets from the author's Twitter handle, @DanFreem, documenting ableist comments under the hashtag StopAbleism2015. Tweet 1: "You only want people to feel sorry for you." That isn't the narrative I put forth but rather the one society perpetuates. Tweet 2: "Can you have sex... like how does that work if you're disabled?" Real thing said to me. Tweet 3: "Oh. I just assumed you didn't drive... because... you know... you're disabled." Real thing said to me. Tweet 4: "You're not disabled. You can walk and talk just fine. Stop using the handicap door." Real thing said to me. Tweet 5: "Everyone has their own hardships. You have to get over the fact you're disabled." Real thing said to me. Tweet 6: "If I were disabled, I wouldn't want to have kids because I wouldn't want to pass it on." Real thing said to me.

Taken from my personal Twitter account.

Highly intelligent and socially aware college students made all the statements you read above. Most of them were, or are currently, my friends and/or former colleagues.

What these statements show is that just because someone is educated or has known you for a long period of time, it doesn’t mean they even begin to understand you. Moreover, what these statements demonstrate is not only ignorance, but a critical lack of willingness to understand, to empathize. I don’t want people to “feel sorry” for me, but rather to holistically and analytically consider my position as a PWD: my body doesn’t have to be a barrier. My body—like the bodies and minds of other marginalized groups—could be a bridge like the one from the Harry Potter set, a way to learn about the issues people with disabilities face from someone who is disabled. But there are not attempts to learn our stories, to treat us like people.

For me, what matters most is that someone takes the time to ask about what I need, because quite honestly, I shouldn’t have to tell anyone unless I want to. The ableism that I have faced in the academy has kept me from wanting to tell people about my disabilities in any sort of genuine or deep capacity. This, in turn, has made me constantly evaluate the people I find and surround myself with. I also spend an enormous amount of attention and energy on my environment and the technologies available to me at any given moment to make my body adapt to the mold that the academy built for it. As you can imagine, this cycle takes an emotional and physical toll — depression, anxiety, and general fatigue are all issues that I deal with — but I deal with them just like I do my disabilities: by reminding myself that I alone create my own narrative, even when other people try to do it for me.

Accommodating the Academy

Able-bodied people all have things that they fall short with, skills or tasks that they will never master. But when disabled folk say, “These are the things I need in order to do my very best,” it is labeled as an “accommodation” rather than as an “accessibility need”. The language itself is ableist in nature, bringing into focus the reality of how disabled bodies are seen as barriers to able-bodied life.

When has technology created for people with disabilities not been of help to the able-bodied population? We have self-opening doors, elevators, escalators, moving walkways, talk-to-text tech (including, but not limited to, dictation software) — the list goes on. Able-bodied people tend to think about these tools as conveniences rather than everyday necessities. Meanwhile, when an escalator stops moving, people are upset — don’t they realize they can still use them as stairs?

It would be untruthful of me to claim that I use technology made specifically for PWDs on a daily basis. At the same time, however, I will never turn down a free ride to class, or the opportunity to utilize the audio notes function on my Microsoft Word program. Technology, in general, helps me live my life. Yes, I need “handicap” doors. Yes, I need ramps made for wheelchairs, even though I do not use one. I need you to use the goddamned microphone — we all hate how we sound using one, so just do it for crying out loud!

Regardless of how much money institutions have, I do not think that we will ever see a day when every building is truly accessible for every type of body. The technology that exists to help my body — and the bodies of others — to function, is increasingly more diverse with every year that passes. While some of this technology is borne out of a true desire to make PWDs lives’ easier, many new inventions merely seek to “fix” disability, to make the Other the Same. However, the overriding thought is that accessible technology allows PWDs not only to have “easier” lives, but more fulfilling ones. And in a country where we pride ourselves on the pursuit of happiness, why do PWDs have to fight so adamantly for their accessibility needs?

Perhaps the most frustrating fight that this population faces is in the academy. Right now, college institutions are not giving students, staff, and faculty the resources to actively learn about these issues. Isn’t college supposed to be the time in a person’s life where they learn about themselves, and the world? Furthermore, if the education system has not taught students about these issues before, then I’d wager that this would be the best , and perhaps,  last opportunity to do so before they venture out into the world and start contributing to society. Disability, illness, disease — these are a fundamental part of what it means to be human. With that in mind, college campuses can, and should, do a better job of advocating for their students, staff, and faculty with disabilities.

Crossing the Bridge  

Interior of the Hogwarts bridge referenced earlier in the piece.

Photo CC-BY Rev Stan, filtered.

To be fair, there are colleges and universities that have given their students with disabilities the opportunities and technologies that they need to be successful students and people. In my experience, though, there’s much more work to be done. Giving out accessible technology to students with disabilities is a start. But what about teachers using a captioning service for their lectures? What about having large-print copies of the lectures available to any student that needs them? Or, more generally, why can’t professors let students move around the classroom as they need to?

I understand that some of these concepts are just not cost effective. I understand that they may even seem counter-productive to learning. What the academy needs to understand about accessibility and the question of “access” itself, however, is that access is just as capacious as disability is. One student’s accessibility needs will not match another’s — not exactly. So supporting all students’ accessibility needs will cost money if the right services (and the people to carry out those services) are to be provided.

Even 25 years after the ADA was passed by Congress, the academy refuses to understand that mere compliance with the law does not equal fair or adequate service. I’m talking about housing regulations for students with disabilities in addition to testing and classroom accommodations; I’m talking about the architecture of buildings and the (lacking) presence of walking signals at crosswalks which vocalize the action for people who are blind or hard of hearing. I’d also like to say that there should be more curb cuts so fools like me don’t have their slower, clumsier foot snag the curb whilst walking and fall on their face. The point is that accessibility in the academy should go beyond the classroom, just like learning does.

What accessibility should look like in the academy?

Technology and people working together in order to make everybody — every body — feel at home in a place that isn’t home.

The author’s views/opinions are his own and not affiliated with any institution of higher education.


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