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Friday, April 27, 2018

Academic Ableism at Syracuse and Beyond

Yesterday I read a hard-hitting email sent to Syracuse University faculty listserv written by Stephen Kuusisto. My first thought was this will not be well received by faculty and administrators. What Kuusisto wrote was direct and briefly outlined why Syracuse is a hostile environment for students and faculty members who have a disability. In response to his email, today Kuusisto wrote:

Because racism, ableism, homophobia, misgogyny are rampant right now at Syracuse University (the story broadly told) I feel unwelcome on campus. I’m blind and have struggled to get basic accommodations as a faculty member for seven years. When I speak about this I’m largely treated to double talk. It’s too hard for this university to make books and articles accessible in a timely way. It’s too hard to assure that sighted support is available to the blind. I’ve been told these things and if I’m hearing them I can only imagine what disabled students are experiencing. Except I don’t have to imagine. They tell me. They tell me over and over what a mean spirited place SU really is.
Yesterday I was told to be quiet. My mistake? I posted a cris de coeur about these problems on a departmental listserv. I was told that my opinions offended people.
That’s of course how ableism works. It offends the ableists to know they’re part of a structural system. They think themselves liberal, progressive, tolerant. Blaming the disabled for calling attention to the problem is Ableism 101.
I said I’d never post to the departmental listserv again.
But I won’t stop talking about the ugliness of higher education and disability discrimination. I won’t. Link:
If there is one trait Kuusisto and I share as pre ADA cripples it's that we came of age before the law was on our side and as a result we are persistent. Neither Kuusisto nor I will ever give up. He and I and others will relentlessly bang at the front door of academia and push for inclusion. I, for one, cannot stop. I will not give ableist bigots the satisfaction of winning. But the point must be made that academic ableism is not limited to Syracuse University. Academic ableism is rampant at every higher educational institution in the nation. The veritable Ivory Tower looks down upon those with a disability that want to receive an education and those who want to teach, write, and research.

My liberal hard-working nondisabled colleagues will disagree with the above. As Kuusisto wrote, they will even be offended! If we are going to talk about offensive let's get to it. I have had the following experiences in the hallowed halls of academia.

Last summer I was a seminar leader in a bioethics intensive program at Yale University. There was no accessible bathroom in the building where we met. I had to dehydrate myself daily. The nearest bathroom was two blocks away. To enter the building the automatic door opener was broken. It took a week to repair.

At Syracuse University I requested a handicapped parking permit to park on campus. It took over a year to process my request.

To get the above parking permit I had to go to the parking permit office. The wheelchair lift was filled with office supplies and trash. The lift was also blocked by a large plant that had not been moved in quite some time.

Again, at Syracuse University I tried to attend a lecture by a guest speaker. The large auditorium was "minimally accessible". The wheelchair lift to access the only accessible seating area was filthy. Handicapped seating was filled with office supplies and trash. Unwilling to sit in filth, my colleagues smiled and waved to me as they walked into the auditorium.

I was invited to attend an academic conference on disability and the health care system at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The entrance to the conference was not accessible. Organizers and participants posted a picture of themselves standing on the steps. Link:

At an unnamed university where I was teaching I walked across campus with a colleague who bitterly complained that the campus was "over-run with students who had a learning disability". This colleague bitterly noted he was forced to give these students extra time on exams. The person felt this was an unfair advantage and told me not everyone was college material. When I pointed out elevators and ramps were expensive modifications the person told me "that is completely different".

At Purchase College I was assigned to teach in a non-accessible classroom. When I called to move the class I was told it was not possible. Apparently it was "impossible to meet the preferences of every professor on campus".  The not so subtle message was my request was entirely unreasonable.

I gave an early evening talk at Cornell Medical School. When my colleagues and I tried to leave all the accessible bathrooms and exits were locked.

Academic meetings are grossly inaccessible. Podiums are designed for a speaker who stand and stages have steps.  I have had dozens of talks delayed or canceled outright. Any time I give a talk I am forced to exchange dozens of emails to be sure the podium is accessible.

I have been invited to dinner dozens of times by colleagues at inaccessible restaurants and venues. Plans are not altered and I am not included.

I gave an informal talk about ableism in health-care settings at a prestigious bioethics center. The founder of the center commented that "it was so nice I could make a career out of being disabled".

The short list above merely notes a few inclusion failures. My point here is not to bash my colleagues. I have had many wonderful experiences and some people have bent over backward to insure my participation. Yet, no one asks the all important why. Why does it take maximum effort to get the most basic accommodations nearly 30 years after it was legally required? Why is it that administrators bitterly complain about the cost of inclusion and routinely refuse to hire ASL interpreters and provide CART? Why after 25 years of teaching am I always the sole wheelchair using professor on campus? Where are my disabled colleagues? Why is online material so difficult if not impossible to access for blind people? Why did Syracuse purchase Orange Success software knowing it was not possible to access if you were blind?

I do not like to upset people. I wish I did not have to fight a battle every time I try to attend an academic meeting or teach on campus. But battle I do. And yes I upset a lot of people.  In fact, it seems to me the only way to make change is to upset others. I truly hate to acknowledge that the Syracuse campus is a toxic and unwelcoming environment for students and faculty members with a disability. I had great times at Syracuse University--the highlight by far giving a talk at "Cripping the Comic Con" in 2014 in full zombie make up. It was a moment I will forever cherish. I have routinely had positive experiences at the Hastings Center whose researchers have treated me with the utmost respect. Joseph Finns, former president of the ASBH, has gone out of his way to help and support me.  Indeed, many former and current colleagues have enhanced my life. Yet none of this has made my life in academia easy. It has been a long hard road. I have paid a heavy price for my career choices. I remain poorly paid and largely unwelcome. This is a hard truth many of my non-disabled peers refuse to acknowledge. Like Kuusisto I refuse to be quiet.  If people are uncomfortable with this I am sorry but I will not be silent. Silence leads to isolation and exclusion. I will not let that happen. Like I already said, I will not give the ableist bigots the satisfaction of giving up.

1 comment:

Stephen Kuusisto said...

I am grateful for you friendship, toughness, and steadfastness/