'Academic Ableism'

Academic Ableism (University of Michigan Press) notes the progress higher education has made to be more inclusive of people with disabilities than in the past. But the book isn’t full of praise. Rather, it offers critique after critique of the way colleges have ignored or responded inadequately to the needs of many students and professors.

The author is Jay Timothy Dolmage, associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, who takes disability issues seriously. Below the signature line on his emails is this phrase: “If you have an accommodation need for a planned meeting, please email me directly and I will do my best to make appropriate arrangements. Should you require any materials sent via this email address in an alternate/accessible format, please let me know.”

Via email, he responded to questions about his new book.

Q: What drew you to disability studies?

A: I grew up in the disability rights movement in Canada — and my entire family is still involved in this movement. But when I was a kid, it began with a fight for my brother’s right to go to an inclusive school, in our neighborhood, with his friends and my sister and I. We took that fight all the way to the Ontario Supreme Court of Appeal … and we lost! So we moved to a school [district] where he could be included in a regular classroom, and we supported the subsequent legal challenges that eventually established the right to inclusive education. My mother and my sister, in particular, still work directly to help families protect and achieve this right to education. I see myself as carrying this fight into higher education.

Q: Much of the early discussion about disability in higher education focused on legal requirements about buildings — stairs, bathroom facilities, etc. How did those discussions shape the way academe perceives these issues?

A: In the book I say that this history has, in part, established disability in mainly legal and medical terms. This means that disability isn’t seen as an identity as much as it is seen as a diagnosis, and this diagnosis is seen to have — not cultural or social values — but legal requirements attached to it; minimum legal requirements. So disability gets framed as something you can get wrong if you don’t have the right infrastructure, as at best something that is a cost: you have to get that infrastructure up to the minimum. That’s a pretty problematic way to view 10 to 15 percent of students — as legal risks, as costs. That said, the metaphors that come from physical accessibility — ramps, elevators, etc. — we can do some useful things with these metaphors, urging people to see accessibility much more broadly. What are the ways you build ramps and elevators in your own classroom, to invite everyone in?

Q: More recently, much of the discussion has been about technology, and how various technology tools can be (or many times are not) accessible. How has that changed the narrative?

A: Well, I don’t think it has changed it much at all. Still, the requirement for access is constructed as a cost. It is a really frustrating, unfair calculus. To make content accessible in a general sense, that’s seen as a duty — it is seen as just good teaching. But when something like digital content needs to be made accessible for people with disabilities, that’s not seen as an investment, it is seen as a cost, one to be avoided if possible. And so people really do avoid it. At the very best, we get digital “ramps” that actually cost people with disabilities, or that make learning much more difficult for them — these are ramps in the back door of higher education, not in the front door.

Q: In the United States, there is constant discussion of what is “reasonable” in terms of providing assistance. Does that “reasonable” test bother you?

A: Oh, goodness yes. Who is constructed as having the “reason” in this situation? It’s not the disabled student. And because it is not coming from the learners themselves, but instead through bureaucracies designed to deliver the very minimum, we don’t get very logical or reasonable accommodations at all. Around 90 percent of accommodations in North America are the same, rubber-stamped thing: more time on tests and exams. That’s good — lots of people need that and use that accommodation to keep up with their peers and to provide evidence of how much they have learned. But it shows how little imagination there is — we teach in myriad innovative ways, but we give the same little minimal accommodations over and over again, and force students to ask, over and over again, and prove their disability, over and over again? It is almost absurdist. The lack of innovation, the repetition, the lack of generosity and curiosity, the lack of communication between teachers and learners, I could go on and on. So, yes, it bothers me!

Q: Do you think academe devalues those people who have a disability of some type?

A: Unfortunately my answer here is a confident one: definitely. I think it is hardwired into academic culture. Around 90 percent of students with learning disabilities get accommodations for those disabilities in high school. Only around 10 percent of those same students, when they go to college or university, seek accommodations. That is even though those same disabilities could be experienced more deeply in higher ed. So why is that? Well, it is a culture that is all about independence, competition, achievement, measurement, comparison, perfection. Admitting that you need help seems out of the question.

So most students who do get accommodations wait until at least their third year to get them; they would rather struggle and try to get through than ask for help. And we see the same trends on the postgraduate level and definitely among faculty — have a look at the recent collection Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education for more on this. The question, for educators, then, needs to be: How am I part of this culture, even unconsciously? What toll is this taking on me? On my students? What makes me afraid to admit this, or to admit my complicity in it? How can I work to change this culture?

Q: Higher education constantly considers issues of diversity, but many times the focus is on race and gender. Where should disability fit in?

A: It should fit in intersectionality. Disability is never “alone with itself” — that is, there are always ways that it is inflected, influenced, shaped by gender, race, sexuality and other identity markers. It’s something that is awesome about disability identity: there are cultures of inclusion across all of these vectors of difference. But, historically, those combinations and intersections were used much more negatively. Disability was used as a marker of biological deviance and inferiority, flexibly applied onto a range of bodies to construct them as less than human.

As to the history of that, and its politics, isn’t easy to get away from. But disability is a really important form of diversity, just never “alone” — disability is one of the important ways that real diversity takes shape. I hope that the book begins to show this value — that we need to move on from legal and medical definitions of disability. We need to move on from minimal “reasonable” accommodations. We need to take a hard look at a culture that wants to deny disability despite the real cost of doing so. If disability can be seen as part of the fabric of higher education, as something that comes in the front door, not around back, as something that drives change and innovation and builds community, then my feeling is we will all become better teachers.

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