I've had a really hard time deciding what to write about for Blogging Against Disableism Day. For those of you who don't often read me, I'm a second year student at a liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts, focusing for the most part in American Studies and anthropology. Recently I've been really interested in disability studies and ableism as a system of oppression against non-normative bodies. Most of the research I've done on this issue has been self directed; the movement resonates with me on several levels, and the more I try to focus my interests elsewhere, the more I find myself drifting back into disability. I can't help it. I think it appeals to me on several levels; I'm queer, female, and have a nonverbal learning disability and sensory integration disorder. My school life has been dominated by a discourse of disability, IEP, accommodations, advocacy, mainstreaming, special education, and the ever present concern of whether or not I would graduate from high school, apply to college, go to college, stay in college, and graduate from college. And here I am.
Disability within higher education is a slippery slope of intersectional identity politics, blatant ablest discrimination, and subtle every day acts of regulation that happens at an administrative level, but also within the classroom, with other students, even in the physical structure of buildings. For a project this semester, I have been working on an ethnography in which I've interviewed seven disabled college students about their experience in higher ed. I'm not going to talk too much about them here, because none of them have given me express permission to, but I feel that is is appropriate to address one finding that was particularly worrisome; the intersection of race, class, sexuality, and disability.
College is expensive, challenging, and intensive for pretty much everybody I've ever met who has gone through it, or is going through it now. Think about it; for the first time possibly ever, you're thrown into a situation where you're managing your own living space that you may or may not have to share with someone else, probably working, eating all your meals in a cafeteria or dining hall with lots of other students, managing family and social concerns, and, oh yeah, going to class. You're worrying about homework, majors, and possible career choices. Add to that mix questions of sexual identity, raciest remarks from fellow students, trouble paying for tuition, or wheelchair access buttons that just don't work, and you have yourself a remarkably stressed out student.
Higher education is as inherently ableist, and there's no way to get around that point. Whether it is in buildings that are barely ADA compliant so that they can maintain their “historical” value, hilly campuses with classroom buildings that are far apart, or full course load expectations, disabled students on campus may certainly face many challenges just trying to get around. Learning disabled students, and students with “invisible” disabilities are also harmed by this system, as classrooms are often organized around a particular type of learning, syllabi are organized around what the “typical” student should be able to to achieve and by when, and academia favors a high stress environment where nobody sleeps and everyone is hopefully addicted to caffeine. I can't tell you how many classes I've been in where the syllabi specifically states that the professor does not allow more than one or two absences per class, even in cases of sickness. I wonder how many students with fibromyalgia, immune system disorders, or other disabilities that may require them to unexpectedly miss several classes have elected not to take these courses, having been intimidated by the harsh language of the syllabus. I know that I would not want to discuss issues pertaining to missed classes with a professor who so blatantly stated his or her intolerance for illness.
In addition to being inherently ableist, higher education is also in many ways classist, raciest, sexist, homophobic, and heterosexist. The thing is, disability intersects with issues of race, class, sexuality and gender in a myriad of ways, especially when it comes to access to higher education. A working class student, for instance, for whom a college education is already a stretch, may not be able to go because insurance won't pay for the equipment that he or she needs to get around school. Sure, insurance might allow this student to have a walker or a leg brace. This is great, except for if this student is too tired from trying to walk around campus all day long to finish all of his or her homework every night. A wheelchair might save enough energy so that this student can perform optimally at school without being completely exhausted all the time, but if insurance doesn't cover it, then it is not a possibility.
In regards to gender, disabled women are already twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted as non disabled women. Women in college especially often face situations in which sexual violence is condoned, such as campus parties and sometimes living situations, and I can imagine that this danger must be higher for women in college with non-normative bodies, whom certain men may see as weak or easy. More research needs to be done to ascertain whether or not this is true, but if I had a physical disability I'm pretty sure I would have thought twice about living at college female.
People of color already face significant barriers to obtaining higher education. Historically, the Ivory Tower has only been accessible to the Ivory colored, to be perfectly snarky, and I've observed among students of color at my own institution that this is, in many ways still the case. Students of color at schools that are mostly white are unfairly responsible for maintaining an excellent GPA to prove that they should be allowed to be there in the first place, and educating white students about the fact that racism exists and confronting them about their attitudes. At many institutions, they also have to defend their right to be friends with each other in a way that's not “self segregating” and defend their right to safe spaces, away from raciest attitudes. Add disability to this mix, and you can see that just the emotional toll of having to advocate for one's right to occupy a white space, and then having the right to operate in an ableist space, would be enough to burn out any student.
I noticed in my study that several of my informants said that they identified as a “cripdyke,” which is a perfect example of an intersectional identity. Cripdykes are queer and disabled, and, at least those that I have met have a real fuck you attitude to the whole system. On campus, homophobia and heterosexism can work it's way into the classroom and administrative workings of the school in policies that give benefits to heterosexually married professors over those in domestic partnerships, where sexuality is not addressed as an identity category in classroom discussions, or in environments where many members of the student body are overtly hostile to the LGBT/queer community. Again, being disabled adds one more obstacle.
There are many other intersectional identities that operate within this space, making it difficult for a student who is poor and disabled, or black and disabled, or black and female and disabled, or female and queer and poor and disabled, or transgender and poor and disabled to apply, enroll, and succeed in higher education. Disabled students also face uniquely ableist challenges of physical space. For example, if a queer disabled student feels that she is being harassed because of her sexual identity and would like to work with the LGBT/queer group on campus to find a space to express some of that frustration and anger, and such a group exists, that's great. Assuming, that is, that the space is accessible to her and her equipment. If she can't use stairs, and the meeting space is on the third floor of a dorm that is only accessible on the first floor, this space is as useless to her as if it didn't exist. If a professor has office hours but the office is in a similarly inaccessible space, it's implying that only able-bodied students have the option to meet with professors about their studies.
What can higher education institutions do to be more accessible to disabled students? Campuses need to be built accessibly, and I'm talking universally accessibly; available for every body, every impairment. The government needs to support this and help campuses to become accessible places so that money is not a concern. Older buildings with accessible entrances around the side or back of the building should be clearly signed, so that people don't have to hunt around for an entrance. Dorms and other student spaces should especially be universally accessible so that students have access to safe spaces and more flexibility in living options. Professors need to be aware of the type of language that they have in their syllabi and how it might sound to disabled students.
(This is obviously only the beginning, and it's something I'd like to continue research on for my entire life. Anyone have any suggestions about where to go/what to do/who to talk to next?)