There's no elevator to the top of the Ivory Tower...

« previous entry | next entry »
May. 1st, 2007 | 01:05 am

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2007

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?)

Link | Leave a comment | Share

Comments {21}

Comment from the Goldfish

from: anonymous
date: May. 1st, 2007 11:22 am (UTC)
Link

It is so depressing when there is such discrimination in colleges and universities - which you think would be hubs of progressive thought and egalitarianism. Instead, there tends to be so much old-school (if you'll forgive the pun) politics.

A disabled friend in one of the top UK universities asked to move to a different college so that she had less far to travel to get to her faculty. She was told that she was "too pretty" for that college, as the young men there were a boisterous lot and her moving in would simply invite sexual harassment.

Like that was her problem...

Reply | Thread

write_naked

Re: Comment from the Goldfish

from: write_naked
date: May. 1st, 2007 02:08 pm (UTC)
Link

I was actually wondering about the UK, since they're university system is wicked impossible to understand (OK, maybe that's just me) and as far as I know there's no equivalent to the ADA. At least it doesn't seem that way based on what I've observed on trips to visit family over there. It would be really neat to do research about this over there too.

That's crazy what youre friend went through. I'm really starting to loose faith in the education system to be as progressive as I thought it was going to be. I'm at a school right now that prides itself on it's radicalism, but it turns out that most of the students are just ill informed libertarians and there's been a lot of raciest speech and actions recently that are really disheartening. Grr.

Reply | Parent | Thread

Re: Comment from the Goldfish

from: anonymous
date: May. 2nd, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
Link

(The Goldfish again, should sort myself out a livejournal account really).

We do have an equivalent to the ADA; the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) and it is great in many ways, it has revolutionised practices in some areas, but as with all social change, even with the law in place, change is deathly slow. Because this is civil law and because it uses words like "reasonable" (as I'm sure the ADA must), you have to first create precedents for what can be considered reasonable. So in order for real change to happen, lots of disabled people have to take legal action against businesses and other organisations. Which, of course, none of us really want to do.

And, of course, most of the problems remain in people's attitudes. And with disabled people (and as with women to a increasingly lesser extent), there is the sense that much of what is done which causes disadvantage is actually done to look after us, for our own good...

Reply | Parent | Thread

The Kumquat

Re: Comment from the Goldfish

from: thekumquat
date: May. 8th, 2007 12:24 pm (UTC)
Link

[just followed a link here from the Ouch website]

The UK's DDA only had its main bit come into force about 3 years ago, and the concept is still sinking in. When I was in my final year at uni (Cambridge) in 1996 access such as notetakers was provided by volunteers, usually students, and as I was a scientist and science students had too much on their timetable to volunteer, there were no notetakers. If I'd realised this might be a problem before my third year, it could have been sorted. For the time, though, they were pretty good on mental health, as the uni was desperately trying to shift its reputation for student suicide. So although it still has 6-day a week 8-week terms, no reading week, being part-time over a couple years wasn't a problem, and getting classes moved to the ground floor could also be done (for all subjects, with one request to the Director of Studies). I did however have a personal tutor who was useless and included total lack of disability/mental illness awareness in that, but most other tutors and GPs and the uni counselling service made up for that.

My old college used to have an inaccessible bar and JCR, but I was pleased to see that last year there is now a lift, which even blends in really well into the Grade I listed building's limestone. Most other buildings I used to use are now accessible (in terms of automatic doors, lifts, more induction loops). Still room for improvement though.
Friends who went to Oxford recently say that it still has a lot more of the classist, sexist, snobbish, etc attitudes especially in certain colleges (and your college is a big deal in Oxford as you get taught there a lot more - in Cambridge they're often just glorified dorms).

I also studied in London for 6 years - Kings was poorly organised for most things including access; UCL was better. My experience is the more someone talks about being radical, the less useful they're likely to be, on disability equality or anything else.





Reply | Parent | Thread

Lydia

Re: Comment from the Goldfish

from: nita_nitro85
date: May. 2nd, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
Link

From the 'college' reference I guess this is likely to be Oxbridge...and I'm sorry to say I'm not at all surprised. Even my college which is pretty good on issues of race, religion, sexuality, gender is piss-poor at making itself accessible for disabled students. I dread to think what the rest of the uni's like. And the intersection with sexist victim blaming is the icing on the cake.

Reply | Parent | Thread

isaiahboi

(no subject)

from: isaiahboi
date: May. 1st, 2007 02:14 pm (UTC)
Link

i'm really really glad you did this post and researching all of this...
i feel like you should be up at a podium speaking at pride parades or something!

Reply | Thread

write_naked

(no subject)

from: write_naked
date: May. 1st, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
Link

I love you, Issie.

Reply | Parent | Thread

(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: May. 1st, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)
Link

As a college student, I often found that my school - which touted its diversity and acceptance - had simply never thought of the many ways they needed to change in order to accomodate disabled students. Even the disability services coordinator (a new post, created the year before I started) had no clue what to do about many of the situations I faced. You hit so many of the key points here, and I can see that your research is going to illuminate a lot of these issues. Best of luck.

Reply | Thread

write_naked

(no subject)

from: write_naked
date: May. 1st, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)
Link

I'd really actually like to take this project and expand it for my senior project. So if you'd be interested in checking back in a year or so I'd love to talk with you about your expeirences. One of the things I'm noticing is how impossible swamped disability services people are; at my school, there's one guy for everything from cerebral palsy to dyslexia to mononucleosis to bulemia. No wonder it's difficult for him to convince the school to seriously consider better physical accessibility; he never gets a spare second of the day! Thanks for the encouragement.

Reply | Parent | Thread

the girl in the other room

(no subject)

from: corbistheca
date: May. 1st, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
Link

Hey, I'm really glad that you posted this. In fact, I linked it on my lj -- I hope that's okay.
~ c.

Reply | Thread

write_naked

(no subject)

from: write_naked
date: May. 1st, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
Link

Woo! I love links!

Reply | Parent | Thread

ahistoricality

(no subject)

from: ahistoricality
date: May. 1st, 2007 10:23 pm (UTC)
Link

Very nice discussion: quite on target.

It's shocking how many of us in higher ed are deeply unreflective....

Reply | Thread

Your right I think

from: anonymous
date: May. 2nd, 2007 05:19 am (UTC)
Link

I agree with most of what you wrote. Though it seems as though when people at colleges think about deversity, disabled people get left out. And the Disability services office at my current university is a joke. But when I was at a small liberal arts college I got all the help I needed. Granted I am not in a whealchair, but it does make you think. Since you would think a university would do a better job of accomidating and understanding disabled students then a smaller liberal arts college.

Reply | Thread

write_naked

Re: Your right I think

from: write_naked
date: May. 2nd, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
Link

I think it depends on the individual and their needs, and the school and it's ability/willingness to accomodate. But yeah, you would think that a university would have all the resources they need to accomodate one student's needs. Thanks for the feedback!

Reply | Parent | Thread

Elizabeth

(no subject)

from: mpshiel
date: May. 2nd, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC)
Link

I agree with what you say and then some - in the UK (at at top 15 uni) a friend with a hearing difficulty had to tape and pay for transcription for her entire first year before the uni would agree to do it, then as a graduate, on a graduate board, the department head sitting next to her said, "I don't think this department should accept any disabled students, they just aren't mentally as competent as other students."

Now in Canada, I find it ironic that WE don't have a disablility act and while higher education does have a hand-up quota system based on gender, it doesn't with disability. Not that, realisticly, many with disability could compete - most aren't doing extra work in part time jobs in their field since the obstacles to being in Uni are plenty - how does a person with a disability compete in an open "it's who you know and how padded your CV/resume" system?

Reply | Thread

write_naked

(no subject)

from: write_naked
date: May. 2nd, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)
Link

Wow, I totally hadn't thought about that last point; how do you pad out your resume the way that everybody else does? I have enough time with my learning disability to get anything done other than my schoolwork becuase my processing speed, and I haven't really reached the point in my academic career where extra-curricular stuff really matters, but I can't imagine devoting another ten hours a week or so to something else too! Huh. That's a really good point, thanks for bringing that up.

It does surprise me that Cananda doesn't have a disabily act. I'm so used to looking at Canada as the epitome of everything progressive. Although come to think of it when my girlfirend and I went to visit Montreal it was pretty inaccessable, but I just chalked it up to Montreal being an old city- old city Philadelphia's pretty inaccessable too. Hmm....

Reply | Parent | Thread

(Deleted comment)

write_naked

(no subject)

from: write_naked
date: May. 3rd, 2007 04:41 am (UTC)
Link

Hey Theresa!

Technically ADA accomodations are supposed to be at least partially reimbursed by the government. However I think that only covers accomodations to the outside of the building. You might want to mention to your landlord that by not having a wheelchair accessable enterance you're actually breaking the law and you could be sued. In which case it would eventaully come back to him.

Also you're not that incoherent. It's good to hear from you again. How's Chile?

*hugs back*

Reply | Parent | Thread

Nickie Coby

(no subject)

from: puppybraille
date: May. 3rd, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
Link

I'm a visually impaired college student with a chronic pain condition, and I have to say, it sounds like you've given this a lot of thought. Admittedly, I don't belong to a racial, ethnic or other "minority". But I'm glad that you are addressing these issues. Please keep up the excellent work!

Reply | Thread

write_naked

(no subject)

from: write_naked
date: May. 3rd, 2007 04:30 am (UTC)
Link

What I kind of meant by tying it together with intersectionality is that the reason why there are so few students of color or low income students with disabilities in higher education is because those students are already facing added barriers. But I think it's hard for anybody with a disability to access education, and I think it's really great when they manage to get there. Thanks for the comment!

By the way, the dog in your user pic- I'm assuming it's yours- is super cute and I kind of want to ruffle it's ears.

Reply | Parent | Thread

Comment from Jacq

from: anonymous
date: May. 6th, 2007 12:53 pm (UTC)
Link

I've had good experiences at the university level here in Canada. I found the university so much easier to deal with than the public schools for my disability. The university I went to for my undergrad was also very accessible physically and had quite a few physically disabled students. As for racial diversity we had that too. There was a large asian population as well as students from the Carribean as foreign students, not to mention a diverse group of Canadian students. Back then I wasn't as aware of GLBT issues so I can't speak to that for my undergrad U. I know in my graduate school I've had a few lesbian profs and some students that also identified themselves as such with no outward signs of discrimination.

I actually just did a paper on disability as diversity in education. I'm going to post it to my blog soon. http://adhdnme.blogspot.com (http://adhdnme.blogspot.com) I mentioned the intersection of other areas of disability but I do think that further study into the effects of this intersection would be really interesting.

Reply | Thread

critical disability studies

from: anonymous
date: May. 9th, 2007 05:43 am (UTC)
Link

hey write_naked,

I am also an undergraduate student with a disability, or rather several stemming from one main one,and very much interested in exploring theories of embodiements and normative ideologies. I was born with epilepsy, which in my case means I have a learning disability, as well as ongoing problems with depression/mental illness.

I am studying Sociology at Concordia University in Montreal, with the intent to eventually do an MA in "Critical Disability Studies" at York University in Toronto. This program is unique in north America and quite new and exciting; some of the courses offered are :

Mad People's History

Experiences and politics of multiple identities

critical interpretations of disability history

knowledge production

Disability in a cultural context

Interesting , no?

I don't know if its of interest to you, if it is you should check out their website,(www.yorku.ca) as well, if you get accepted in their program(they don't only look at academic achievement but also activist experiences, work and personal experiences, etc) you are guaranteed either a TA (teaching assistant)ship or an RA(research assistant) ship- that means the university pays you to study, in part at least-I think it's around 15 to $20,000 per annum, but not 100% sure) although I don't know how that works if you're not Canadian- probably a lot less expensive than the states, from what I hear anyways, at the postgraduate level it's easier to get financial assistance, grants, bursaries, etc.especially if you are studying something as cutting edge as this.
Also, from your post I couldn't tell, but, at Concordia, being a student with a disability means I can do only 2 classes and be considered full-time, I get extra time for assignments and exams, as well as extensions etc...although physical accessibility to the building is for crap., do you get this as well at your school?
I've heard the York's office of students with disabiliies is quite good too.

you should also check out these books wich may interest you

the rejected body- by Susan Wendell- a canadian feminist philosopher
the disabiliy studies readers and any writing you can get by Lennard J. Davies
Language and Power by Norman Fairclough- a classic of sociolinguistics

your essay was quite interesting and I enjoyed it.
Good Luck with your studies

Catherine
cripelectric@riseup.net

Reply | Thread