Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Higher Education and Disability Based Discrimination

I have a PhD from Columbia University. My parents are very proud of my degree from an Ivy League school. To this day my favorite photograph of my parents sits on my desk. The photograph has them, my son who was an infant, and me in full academic regalia all smiling. I love this photograph because they look so happy and proud. When I look at this photograph I am reminded of a special time in my life. But alongside fond memories are thoughts and experiences that are not so warm and fuzzy. I was among the first disabled students accepted to Columbia University. I was accepted because I was qualified and had the full support of Robert Murphy, a famous anthropologist who happened to be paralyzed. When I arrived on campus I was scared and considered myself woefully unprepared for the rigors of graduate school. This was an accurate assessment. Murphy could not have been more supportive of me and he was brilliant and blunt man. My first semester at Columbia he told me he would get whatever accommodation I needed. He also warned me that I could not fail. If I failed there was no doubt in his mind that this would be used to justify the future exclusion of disabled students at Columbia for many years. This thought terrified and inspired me because I knew it was true. I worked as hard as humanly possible and when access problems arose as they did daily Murphy had the power to solve them. Without Murphy, there is no chance I would have succeeded and he trusted me to carry a heavy burden. I felt overwhelming pressure to excel. In fact, I did not want to just excel I wanted to exceed all expectations and be an academic star.

My experience at Columbia came back to me today when I read an article, "U. Reports Lower Number of Disabled Students than Peer Institutions" published by the Daily Princetonian. According to staff writer Joanne Chong disabled students make up less than 2% of the Princeton University body. To me, this is a depressing statistic when one considers it is even lower than the average 3 to 4% of disabled students at other Ivy League universities. Why is this a depressing statistic? It is proof that the educational and cultural barriers that existed when I was an undergraduate and graduate student remain common place. Worse yet, at Princeton the Office of Disability Services is less than three years old. This does not surprise me in the least in spite of the fact the ADA was passed almost 20 years ago. My experience has been that prestigious universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc all are needlessly exclusionary. Barriers in terms of wheelchair access and accommodations for people with a host of disabilities are the norm. A culture of perfection exists at schools like Princeton and Columbia and it is assumed students with disabilities have no place on campus. High academic standards, excellence, rigorous work, outstanding performance are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of disability. What do most people think when they see a man such as myself that uses a wheelchair and is paralyzed? Limits. People without any knowledge of disability think of all the things I cannot do rather than the myriad of ways I have adapted to paralysis. Given this instant negative evaluation, lowered expectations exist and the belief that accommodations are tantamount to charity are all too common. This is a deadly combination that creates overwhelming obstacles for many people with disabilities. Such obstacles exist in most institutions and are more obvious at places like Princeton.

In the article I read one quote struck me as particularly astute. A disabled student noted that everyone at Princeton was nice but there was an "unmovable wall of tradition that is very difficult to change". I encountered this metaphorical wall at Columbia in the early 1990s, Ed Roberts, founder of the independent living movement, encountered this wall at the University of California in the 1970s, and students with disabilities encounter this at secondary and post secondary educational institutions today. Progress is taking place but at a glacial pace. This is infuriating to me and thousands of other people with disabilities that simply want access to an equal education.

What has changed is the law. Laws exist that are designed to empower students with disabilities but attitudinal and architectural barriers remain. Students with disabilities know this and are often afraid or too timid to assert their rights. Thus students with invisible cognitive disabilities to give but one example do not seek extra time for a test because such an accommodation may be perceived as unfair advantage. No one explicitly states this and the discrimination is more subtle and insidious. It takes the form of a professor who bemoans the fact campuses are "over run by students with learning disabilities". This statement was made by a colleague of mine who embraces diversity for everyone but people with disabilities.

It is not easy to ask or demand accommodations be made. This is a time consuming thankless task that is perceived by those unfamiliar with disability as a narcisstic endeavor. If I have learned one thing about academic life it is that universities hate change. Making any exception, i.e. accommodations, to well established traditions are not taken lightly. Given this I was not surprised to read that "At the heart of our philosophy is the belief that the course structure is an essential element of a Princeton education. As part of a comprehensive approach to a liberal arts education, we expect the full engagement of our students as members of an intellectual community, and our degree program assumes a common experience of full-time residential study". This rigid structure works for most students but certainly not all. If such rigidity is strictly enforced the number of students with disabilities at Princeton and other universities will remain statistically insignificant. In fact, I would not be writing these words if a basic and reasonable accommodation was not made for me when I was an undergraduate. You see in 1978 I was a newly minted paraplegic just out of the hospital. Like my peers, I headed off to college but I was far from physically capable of carrying a full schedule of classes. The university I attended, Hofstra, permitted me to live in the dorms even though I took three classes, one class short of the minimum allowed. This basic accommodation made in my freshman year gave me the time needed to strengthen my body and mind after years of serious debilitating illness. Today, Princeton would categorically refuse to make such an accommodation.

It is in the best interest of universities to accommodate and embrace students with disabilities. Diversity is important and incorporating disabled students and faculty members on campus can only enhance academic communities. What is lacking on far too many campuses nationwide is the utter lack of progressive attitudes when it comes to disability. Faculty members who vigorously seek to incorporate students of color, women, gays, and other minority groups that are under represented have conspicuously ignored if not actively discriminated against students with disabilities. Is it really that hard to make sure buildings are accessible, hire interpreters for deaf students, provide students with a learning disability extra time to take an exam, and have a disability services officer on campus that can facilitate all this? Not in my estimation. What institutions of higher education lack is the insight and will to make this happen. I for one think academic tradition and tight budgets, a one two knock out punch regularly used to exclude people with disabilities, are poor excuses. Surely if one is smart enough to teach and work at an institution of higher education a solution to the inclusion of people with disabilities can be found and implemented.

Monday, February 23, 2009

David Paterson and the Blind NY POST

A few hours ago I read Planet of the Blind blog entry "Governor Paterson's Blindness and the Public's Incomprehension Leads to an Avalanche of Stereotypes". In Steve Kuusisto's wonderfully acerbic entry he deconstructs the flawed logic of Ben Smith, a writer at Politico, and a New York Post editorial that assert Governor Paterson has failed to perform adequately because he is blind. Smith and the NY Post acknowledge the Spitzer fiasco and the financial crisis are major variables but they maintain Paterson's "troubles" are largely of his own making. Politically, they have a point but like Kuusisto I strenuously object to their assertion that Paterson's failure is tied to the fact he is blind. The NY Post is entertaining to read but often unbalance, biased and in this case dead wrong. On February 19 the NY Post maintained: "Paterson's blindness severely constricts his ability to acquire basic information. His administration is adrift; he is inconsistent, imprecise and often contradictory in his public statements. To put it bluntly, the governor needs competent help". I don't disagree with the political content of the NY Post editorial. Paterson has truly struggled since he took office and some of his decisions make me scratch my head. But connecting Paterson's blindness with his struggles in office is wrong and based on antiquated stereotypes. Kuusisto deconstructs this logic better than I can and as he points out it is based on painfully simple logic: "Blind People can't see. One must see to read. Therefore blind people can't read".

I have just one point to add to Kuusisto's comments about Paterson and that has to do with Ben Smith's opening remarks in "Paterson's Blindness" made on February 19. Smith wrote: "New York Gov. Paterson's story was, when he unexpectedly took office upon Eliot Spitzer's fall, told in familiar terms as triumph over adversity. He had risen to the highest level of government despite being almost entirely blind since birth, and despite not ever having learned to read Braille. This is how America talks about disabilities, and there was no reason to initially not to portray Paterson as having risen to the challenge". Sadly, this is indeed how Americans think of disability in the broadest sense of the term. Governor Paterson overcame "adversity" but what sort of adversity did he encounter? Paterson has been clear on this point: the "adversity" he had to overcome was an educational system that did not want to teach him because he was blind. Schools did not want to spend money on the technology that would make it possible for him to read. He was not worth the effort or expense. This is a form of bigotry few who can walk, see, and hear are willing to acknowledge. In refusing to recognize the civil rights of people with a host of disabilities society clings to stereotypes and the result is that Paterson becomes a straw figure in the eyes of many. He "overcame" a disability and thus is a prime example of superman iconography. He is no mere mortal but a super human person who in spite of his blindness puts all others to shame. The other way Paterson is portrayed is the SNL version: a bumbling fool, disoriented, unable to read, and grossly incompetent.

The total lack of nuance associated with media portrayals of disability ignores a basic fact: people with disabilities are no different than anyone else with the exception of the way they have adapted to a type of physical deficit. We as a species, that is the animal that we humans are, possess an inherent prejudice against all those that are different. Difference is feared and stigmatized. This is learned behavior and people with disabilities are considered a class a part. In Paterson's case he is not just an ordinary politician who has struggled once he took office in a prominent position. No, Paterson is the "blind governor" and what comes first and foremost is that word blind. Blindness is feared just as much as paralysis and many other disabilities. This infuriates me and I for one wonder why can't the media delve into what "legally blind" means? What are the options open to people with profound visual deficits? How many people use guide dogs and what other mobility options exist for blind people? Sadly, these sorts of questions do not generate catchy titles and are heavy on substance. Instead we read editorials such as the one about Paterson in the NY Post that assumes Paterson failed because he is blind. This is an opinion based on a stereotype and lacks any foundation. The implications are great for one could easily assume not only is Paterson incompetent but so are all other blind people and by extension anyone with a disability. To me, this accounts for why so many people with a disability are unemployed and encounter needless obstacles on a daily basis. We as a society can do much better if we would only be willing to use our best asset: our powerful and ever adaptable minds.