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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.