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Monday, August 17, 2009

Barriers to Higher Education Remain the Norm

Two recent reports from abroad have disheartened me. The first, a comprehensive report from the Australian Government, Shut Out, details the experience of people with disabilities. It is grim reading. Australian people with disabilities are isolate, rejected, neglected, abandoned and too often abused. The second report comes from Great Britain. BBC News and other media outlets are reporting that "one in five disabled students is being denied access to teaching and study rooms and libraries at universities". A study conducted by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign found that of eight institutions it looked at in Wales only one had a detailed guide for students with disabilities. Inaccessible buildings, the lack of accessible bathrooms, and limited access to other buildings was not uncommon the MDA found. The lack of access is not restricted to British Universities or Australian society. The United States, the supposed world leader in disability rights, remains hostile to the inclusion of students with disabilities. Sure we have laws like IDEA but it is grossly underfunded. We also have the ADA and yet my son's public school does has a wheelchair lift on one bus--a short bus that carries significant stigma.

The story out of the UK reminded of not only my own experiences prior to the ADA being enacted but the work of Stephen Kuusisto at Planet of the Blind. Kuusisto, without question my favorite writer among many gifted writers in the field of disability studies, has written about his experiences in higher education. What separate Kuusisto from others in disability studies is he is always grounded in reality. Reader of his blog will know he has been critical of the University of Iowa where he teaches for their lack of commitment to wheelchair access. I am sure this does not endear to him to the powers that be. Unlike Kuusisto, I am part of the academic underclass, a part timer, easily replaced--think day worker with a great education--and am too timid to make a stink (I fear being fired). I too encounter substantial barriers where I teach. Purchase College is inhospitable and lacks the most basic commitment to wheelchair access. The services provided students with a disability are a mystery or nonexistent. When I complain, all nod in agreement that better access is needed, and nothing changes. All complaints and requests are ignored. Does this make me mad? You bet it does but I have encountered this problem from the day I entered Columbia University where I got my PhD.

The transition from Hofstra University where I got my BA to Columbia University was startling. At Hofstra there was a long standing and overwhelming commitment to wheelchair access and students with a disability in the broadest sense of the term. The cultural and physical environment was welcoming. At Columbia the exact reverse situation existed. Buildings were inaccessible and the administration had no interest in making the campus accessible. I was among the early trail blazers at Columbia, the first generation of students with a disability who were accepted. Thankfully I had a powerful advocate on my side--Robert Murphy, long time distinguished professor of anthropology and author of the Body Silent and many other books. When I encountered a problem as I invariably did I gave him a call or stopped by his office, the social hub of the department of anthropology. I don't know what he did but every problem I complained about was resolved in 24 hours. In return he expected and told me one thing: Don't screw up because if you do no student with a disability will be accepted for at least 10 years. You must not do well you must be an exceptional student. Talk about pressure! Being a pig headed hard ass I rose to the challenge and graduated from Columbia with distinction.

From what I am told, Columbia is a much different place today. Students with a disability do not encounter too much institutional bias. In spite of this change, higher education remains a difficult place for a student with a disability to navigate. Just as the BBC reported, physical access is no sure thing. Buildings remain inaccessible, administrators close minded, and some professors perceive accommodations as akin to being an advantage. I know this because my professorial peers complain to me that "disabled students expect me to give them extra time for an exam" or "Is it fair for a student to take notes for a student with a disability?" Worse yet, more than one professor has told me "the campus is overrun with students with learning disabilities". For a group of people who are supposed to be smart and open minded comments such as these are a shock. What has really changed is the law--the law is firmly on the side of students with a disability. This is great but does not change the fact the social and academic environment is hostile to the inclusion of people with a disability. Surely the skeptical reader is thinking this bad cripple must be cranky today. His air conditioner is broken and he is venting steam. Sorry but this explanation does not fit. For you skeptics each and every time I teach at some point I ask students a basic question when it seems appropriate: "Has anyone in this class ever had a professor that used a wheelchair". To date, not a single student has answered yes, a span of 15 years. This lack of representation is an overwhelming problem. People with disabilities are rarely if ever academic faculty members. We are not administrators, deans, or university presidents, registrars, board of trustees, provosts, etc. Students with a disability are more common but even their presence is not welcome. So what, I wonder are we teaching college students? There are no professors with a disability and students with a disability are unwanted. Is it any wonder social barriers remain on campus and in society? Not to me and this reminds of when my son was very small. He would ask me "Dad, why are you so unusual, no other fathers use a wheelchair". Stumped for a reply I borrowed a line from Sesame Street and told him: "It is not easy being green". This was true long ago and today. Depressing Monday afternoon thoughts.


Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, I don't like this:

"Don't screw up because if you do no student with a disability will be accepted for at least 10 years. You must not do well you must be an exceptional student. Talk about pressure! Being a pig headed hard ass I rose to the challenge and graduated from Columbia with distinction."

I understand why he said it but I regret the necessity. You viewed it as a challenge, being the person you are (I like a challenge too) but everyone isn't like that. Being different shouldn't mean having to be 150% to be acceptable.

Sometimes minorities talk about the presence of a critical mass of people like them being necessary before they feel comfortable in a venue. I don't share that feeling - I've been the only white person in the group many times and it doesn't bother me at all, the only female ditto - but I absolutely don't expect everybody else to be like me. There's no reason why they should.

So it is troubling, if you think about the number of people who depend upon wheelchairs, to realize that the only places you see them are at the mall and the doctor's office. Being, you know, the hardhearted pragmatic person that I am, I see this as a tremendous waste of human resource; but also it distresses me to think of people who are held back from doing what they want because they can't stand the day-to-day challenge of feeling weird in the group. "Get over it" isn't really helpful. Or they can't stand constantly having to ask for accommodations (that they shouldn't have to ask for) and wondering if they are viewed as too much trouble.

And this: "Is it fair for a student to take notes for a student with a disability?" is stupid. For pete's sake, if the students are learning then what in the world does it matter.

kimba said...

I couldn't handle the pressure of Mature Age studies for High School. I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to be 100% student let alone 150%. There was supposed to be help but they were never in their office and phoning was no good.

william Peace said...

Laura, I did not like what Murphy told me either but had no doubt it was true. I was ready and able to take up the gauntlet he threw down. I did so for the challenge and knowledge I was opening the door for other people with a disability. Thus when I go back to Columbia and see a student using a wheelchair I smile and think I played a small part in the history of the institution and helped break a barrier.
I miss the presence of people with a disability in my professional and personal life. I have few professional peers who use a wheelchair and know not a single person in my county. This leads to a sense of isolation and few question why this is the case.
Most people are under the impression professors are smart but they are just as biased and bigoted as people without an advanced education. My experience has been most people who work on college campuses are prejudicial toward anyone who is different than the norm.
Kimba, I thrive on pressure in some ways. The pressure is the easy part to handle. It is the aftermath of post stress thought that is hard to cope with. Thankfully when I was at Columbia I was young and dumb enough not to worry about what Murphy told me. Only looking back do I grasp the significance of the situation.

FridaWrites said...

Many universities have disability policies for undergrad students but few for grad students and none for employees. And when you try to handle the problem directly because it's neither HR's nor Disability Service's responsibility, some direct supervisors blame you for not doing things right. Few show basic kindness in their approach.

Becs said...

One of my friends works at an Ivy League school's Disability Services offices. She has actually had to explain to parents that "being vegan is not a disability."

Even Ivy Leagues aren't immune to cost-cutting. She told me recently that this coming year, they will likely have one-tenth the operating budget they had last year. Not one-tenth less. One-tenth period.

william Peace said...

Frida, You correct about no services being made available to graduate students and faculty members with a disability. The assumption made is no person with a disability could be a graduate student or professor. Every semester I request a classroom that has wheelchair access yet a list of accessible buildings, classrooms, and bathrooms does not exist. I have been told "to create such a list is too expensive and there is no need". Thus I am forced to visit campus before each semester starts and insure access is reasonable. This is frustrating and should not necessary.
Becs, Ivy leagues schools are snooty in the extreme. Barriers at the "finest" institutions from my experience are among the most problematic. I cannot tell you how many times I have been stuck waiting outside buildings for the accessible doors to be opened. Some institutions, Harvard for instance, still don't get it. I was forced to wait two hours this summer to enter a Harvard library because the only accessible door opened via a museum entrance. I was the only patron denied access to the library and forced to wait until the museum opened.
As to cost cutting, the less said the better. Salaries are going down, professors are largely part timers and tuition is sky rocketing. This "business model" makes no sense.

Unknown said...

Keep the faith brother. Good work like yours raises even the ignorant and prejudiced.

Matthew Smith said...

I went to university in Aberystwyth, on the west coast of Wales, and at the time the place was probably the most inaccessible college in the UK. Basically the main campus was on a big hillside, and access for wheelchairs was considered a non-issue - wheelchair users couldn't get up the hills, so what was the point of adapting the buildings? The most physically disabled person I came across in three years there was one guy known as Woodie who had one leg amputated; there was a disability campaign in the student union, but its main clients were hard of hearing or with minor learning disabilities. However, when I went back a couple of years ago, lifts had been installed in strategic places, so clearly "when there's a will, there's a way".