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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Keep Quiet: A Clear Message

Certain social environments are hostile to people with a disability. There is no universal source of agreement on this. Much depends upon one's age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, social status, geographic location etc. For me, your average paralyzed, middle aged white male I do my best to avoid Catholic Churches, health food stores, and gyms to mention but three places that are hostile to inclusion. I know if I venture into anyone of these places I am going to be demeaned, insulted and treated as a second class citizen. My attitude is why bother? Cut my loses and read the Bible, order vitamins on line, and work out at home. I would also put one more social setting on the list as hostile to disabilities--and this is by no means universal--but would include university campuses. Given this, I was not surprised to read about a student at a New Jersey community college who was subjected to gross bigotry. The student in question stuttered. His teacher, an adjunct, suggested he not take up important class time and ask a question but rather submit questions in writing. The teacher also refused to call on this student in class. Much moral outrage has been expressed and the story has spread well beyond the confines of the New York City area. As usual when it comes to disability, the mainstream press has failed to grasp the larger importance of this incident. Instead news stories are stuck in the lurid details: how bad is the stutter? Adjuncts are under paid and incompetent! Is stuttering a disability? Is the teacher request for written questions a reasonable accommodation? All this misses the point--badly. What is at issue is a larger and growing animosity to students with disabilities on university campuses.

Are some American universities truly inclusive and responsive to disability rights? Yes, and I can think of many with a long history of inclusion. But the opposite is true as well. Some universities are hostile to people with disabilities. For instance, Ivy League institutions I would consider among the worst. When I graduated from Columbia in 1992 a mere two years after the ADA was passed into law I was pissed. Academic administrators purposely made my life miserable at Columbia. Access was not a priority, it was an onerous expensive burden. Cost cutting was common and elevators and wheelchair lifts rarely worked--more than once I was told service contracts for repair were too costly. Entrances that were accessible were often locked, keys mysteriously disappeared. These problems are minor when one considers the social hostility. More than once I was questioned about my place as a graduate student. Did I not feel guilty that I was preventing another qualified student from getting a degree? You see it was assumed I could never work, publish, or be employed.

Throughout the 1990s and until the mid 2000s universities became more accommodating socially and physically. Few if any professors were hired but plenty of students with disabilities were accepted. The welcome wagon came to a screeching halt when the economy tanked and a critical mass of students were suddenly not only asking but demanding reasonable accommodations be made. More than once I have had my professorial peers confess the campus "was over run with students with disabilities demanding ridiculous accommodations like extra class time". When I replied I saw no difference between a ramp and extra time on an exam I was deemed "difficult" or told "that ramps were entirely different".

What then is the larger significance of the story about the student with a stutter? Universities may be more physically accessible but the same institutions that build ramps and install elevators without complaint are far from inclusive. We people with a disability are second class citizens. Lip service is paid to our civil rights. How dare we ask for more! And I have it easy. Physical access for wheelchair users is assumed to be required and as such it is provided--of course if such access is expensive it is the first line item cut from the budget. The real animosity is reserved for students with learning disabilities and what can be called disability studies. Inclusion is much more than ramps and extra time to take a test. Over at Planet of the Blind Kuusisto remarked:

"when higher education can't manage a simple accommodation it delivers that old name tag: “second rate”. By not solving the problem the hierarchical dynamics of ableism are a defacto position.
Doing better means achieving something more than assuring the professional and dignified delivery of accommodations for people with disabilities. It requires a vigorous affirmation of the term “nothing about us, without us” and it means demanding full equality and respect for people with disabilities from all the offices of higher education. Unfortunately, as Lennard J. Davis has remarked, there’s a lingering ableism within neo-liberal circles, one that progressive faculty and administrators don’t generally recognize. I agree with Lenny Davis that the failure of higher education to incorporate disability into a broader framework of campus diversity is a good part of the problem. When an institutilon can imagine that people with disabilities are to be accommodated by special segregated offices and that's the whole of the matter, you are simply reaffirming a victorian (small v) assumption that the cripples belong in a special place--certainly they don't belong in the agora."

This is all too true. In my career I have yet to feel welcomed and my views on disability rights respected at universities where I have worked. Access it was clear was my problem. If I ever broached the subject of disability studies being included in the core curriculum the idea was met with derision. If you want to delve into this in detail, I suggest you read Lenny Davis work. His book Bending Over Backwards is outstanding as is his most recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why Is Disability Missing From Discourse on Diversity (September 25). The skeptic reading this post may be thinking come on, you are full of yourself. I think not. When my son applied to college I learned much about the business of higher education. Diversity, we parents about send in huge tuition payments, were told the campus is diverse. Big bold colorful pictures of young men and women throwing frisbees abounded. Every ethnic group was represented. Not once did I see a photograph of my people. Never did I see a paralyzed student or professor depicted in admissions brochures. In fact, more than one campus tour was entirely not accessible. It was suggested that I remain behind while my son take a tour with dozens of other students and their parents. Call me crazy but this felt and seemed a lot like segregation. Would they have suggested black people stay behind? Not a chance. The fact I had this experience on the grounds of supposedly institutions of higher education is deeply troubling. A sure sign that universities have long way to go in understanding and respecting people with a disability. A good start might be a class on disability rights.


Eric Fischer said...

Outside of the discussion of policy and its implementation in formal academic institutes, basic psychology is not to be forgotten. The societies we live in were not built and are not run by the physically or mentally compromised. They remain an easily oppressed minority due to a lack of significant UNIFIED needs to spearhead social controversy.
This in turn allows for the perpetuation of some basic, nasty, psychological motifs.
Look at this small disturbing example William; when people walk through a crowded hallway, or on a sidewalk, there are small but constant adjustments in trajectory and ergonomics to navigate. In other words people are moving about, compensating for each others physicality, in order to have things running smoothly.
The "excess" physicality of a wheelchair in motion is totally different. The wheelchair operator does not deviate, he moves in a straight line and everyone else better get out of his way! That works on a subtle psychological level for some normal bipeds, to say, "I don't need to bob and weave, I have a wheelchair." It is then perceived as preferential, if not apprehensively egotistical, behaviour.
Never mind that a bobbing and weaving wheelchair would actually create much more disharmony.
But there you are with your darn wheelchair, barreling through, oblivious to us, thinking yourself more important.
I honestly believe these things play around in people's heads, sometimes completely subconsciously and need to be considered. The solution? As always, it's education isn't it?

Unknown said...

Speaking of "keep quiet," I just read this this morning:

She has chronic pain and she is frequently asked to leave, move, or hide.

william Peace said...

Eric, Thanks for the interesting as always astute reply. You are correct our society is designed for people who walk. And this does indeed affect some very basic psychology. Add in ignorance of disability and conflict between wheelchair users and bipedal people is all too common. A wheelchair in a crowded place dominated by bipedal people is a miserable experience. But I wonder is this sort of problem inevitable. We seem to accept the existence of strollers on city streets but not wheelchairs. There is much going on here and the encounters are often Goffman-esque. And yes education is the key. But this takes much time and an open mind. I am not thrilled with university education today. Disability is simply not taken seriously.
Ruth, Being asked to move or leave is not uncommon. In fact I rarely mention I use a wheelchair when making reservations for dinner. Such a request gets me the worst most obscure table in the establishment.

Phil Dzialo said...

I could not agree more, disabled people are frankly quite an inconvenience and somewhat troublesome to greater society.
I will never forget my mother's funeral, of course in a Catholic Church, which I also avoid like the bubonic plague. The monstrous church, filled with old ladies, had no wheelchair ramp, nor handicap access ( this is 7 years ago). So the pall bearers had to carry my son in his wheelchair up probably 20 steps. I can't remember if they carried the casket up first or my boy...somehow I believe the casket took precedence. Adam laughed throughout the ceremony; old ladies and old clerics looked askance...we could have explained he was brain-injured, but why the hell? No money for a ramp I was told...probably spent the billions on settling pedophile suits.
Second on my list is public schools: tolerate the disabled because they take money away from a multitude of AP courses for the abled? Minimally, provide for the handicapped because it would reduce the 6 figure salaries of superintendents and SPED directors.
You are so right and you hit a raw nerve, but that is why we blog, no?

william Peace said...

Phil, American society simply refuses to negotiate the difference between people with and without a disability. Both socially and practically the disabled are unwelcome. Our civil rights are routinely violated and no one cares.
Do not get me going on the Catholic church. I have nothing but utter contempt for the so called leaders of the church. I have no doubt public schools would happily bar students with disabilities if it were not against the law. The animosity directed toward costs associated with "special education" is significant. Go to a school board meeting and it is like stepping back in time to Jim Crow laws.

H said...

I hear you loud and clear on this one Bill, as you might imagine. People who speak out or take any action will be punished. The many ways in which they might try to make one miserable and lonely is truly amazing, if the student won't be forced out.

H said...

Also, when people try and feed me ableist bs, I call them out and ask if they'd make the same statement on basis my belonging to a racial minority group. I get told I'm being ridiculous or sensitive. When I first got to my college I was disappointed that when I looked around and I didn't see any of "my people". When I called having broken elevators and lifts that nobody could find the key for discrimination, I was also categorized as oversensitive. Well, yes, I am sensitive about having classes I can't get to and then being penalized for it.

Recently, I was told my college "loves disabled people" and the problems that spurred my OCR complaint were "part of the learning process" by an employee who was saying this as she put her foot up on the platform of my scooter and arm on the back of my seat. She the proceeded to chastise me about "seeming so angry" about all the problems I've had and continue to have. Caught the whole thing on a iPhone video, and I'd seriously consider youtubing it if I didn't know that most non-disabled people would be totally lost about what is wrong with it.

william Peace said...

Holden, I do not envy college students with a disability. ADA compliance is not a priority and those that work for the university do not have your best interests in mind--their job is to protect the university first and foremost. If you are upsetting people, getting called over sensitive and unbalanced whatever, you are doing something correct. Namely asserting your civil rights. I am behind you 100% Rock that boat and rattle some cages.