Dis/Ability: In Which The Radical Raises A Question About Our Commitment To Access

July 5, 2009, 1:47 pm

I want to begin this post by asserting that I have benefited enormously as a thinker and as an educator from the people in my life who have asked me to think about the diverse categories of humanness that we call disability. Critical ways in which I am smarter are: a greater appreciation for the many differences between students, attentiveness to how I occupy a classroom physically, and a sharper perspective on how stigma is applied even (or especially) in elite educational atmospheres.

One of the things I am very aware of, for example, is how very few physically disabled students we have at Zenith. My acquaintance with several disabled colleagues reminds me why if I didn’t get it already. The campus is at the top of a hill, and for the fully able, free movement can require a vigorous climb; going down also requires balance, joint stability and muscle control that people possess in varying degrees. Elevators are slow, too small and often crammed with faculty and students who could easily walk upstairs. Large parts of the campus are completely inaccessible, and are only made so when the point is pressed sharply. Furthermore, building codes, even when satisfied, don’t necessarily make a building or a part of the campus accessible to everyone. The Castle meets code, but I learned this year that it isn’t actually “accessible” to several colleagues. Or rather, they can get in, but the energy required to do so is enormously taxing and puts tremendous pressure on the remainder of their day.

In the interests of full disclosure, the grandfather I knew best had MS; when I was little he limped and walked with a cane, but the disease progressed over time. I grew up scoping out spaces to figure out whether he could get through them (a person with a cane or a walker is much wider and needs a firm surface); looking for hand railings; knowing that everywhere we went as a group, we went at the speed of our slowest family member; and when I was big enough, being leaned on, tying shoes and helping to lift his lower body in and out of the car. I also have a young cousin who is somewhere on the autism spectrum who I haven’t spent much time with but like a lot. He is bright, deeply compelling as a person, and someone I would be friends with if we lived on the same coast. And autism really changes your perspective, I have to say. You heard it here first perhaps: once you have someone in your family diagnosed with autism and you start looking around at everyone else, legendary “quirks” in members of the family become a pattern and hence, make a lot more sense.

I’m just saying.

But you can forget what you know, particularly since as you become used to someone’s different abilities, they begin to seem “normal”: more on the use of this word later. I have realized that I can also be very alert to those disabilities I am familiar with and be obtuse about others (hence, one of my blogging buddies had to ask me not once, but twice, to eliminate the casual use of the word “crazy” from my posts when referring to those people who I found irrational or incomprehensible in their opinions. You know, it’s like those boys who cheerfully yell “Fag!” to point out some failure of normalcy in the immediate vicinity.)

I first began thinking about disability studies years ago when I was in a seminar with someone who has been a pioneer of the field, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson (her new book, Staring: How We Look is a must-read.) We were both more or less starting out in our careers, and our conversations were the first time I had thought in any structured way about the social privileges that able people take for granted. Some years later I ran a speaker’s series on Disability Studies, and came to admire how our guests thought about what they did in a lecture or seminar room. One speaker pointed out that it is wise to bring along printed texts of a talk for those who are hard of hearing, and that they should be in large type for people who have limited vision. Another noted that anyone who had full ability was in a time-limited state: “You know, most of us will be disabled eventually,” he said.

And yet, over a quarter century after that seminar where Rosemarie introduced me to this world of ideas, I can’t say that higher education as a whole has moved as far as it should have towards thinking about accessibility as a matter of daily practice. What most of us are familiar with on elite campuses is learning disability, an often daunting thing to engage. If you ask me, most of us are on a spectrum of learning disabilities of some kind, with some on the florid end and others of us who are entirely undiagnosed and have learned to cope all by ourselves. University professors: make a list of all the things you do while you are reading, writing and grading papers — and then ask yourself why.

And while we’re at it, what’s the love affair with timed testing? How does this serve learning? And how might we go about changing this feature of university life without asking faculty to teach a separate course to every student in the class?

I know parents who choose colleges based partly on the quality of what are now called “Learning Centers” (no, Zenith doesn’t have one — although we do have a good coordinator who has made a big difference in my opinion). But every college should have one, and it should be avaialable to students who do — and do not — matriculate with a diagnosis in hand. For example, I have heard from a friend of mine who tutors high school kids that every book used at Bard is available in recorded format automatically. I think this is very cool, for three reasons. One is that Bard is reaching out and saying to smart kids who do not learn in conventional ways that they are wanted and valued. Another is that students who, for whatever reason, have difficulty with visual reading — whether it is eyesight, ADD, difficulty holding the book with one’s hands, or something I’m not thinking of — do not have the burden of making separate arrangements for every book, every class, every semester. But the other reason I think this is cool is this: universities spend wads of money moving ahead to the next thing while leaving problems that they know exist unsolved. Making learning accessible isn’t fun, it doesn’t make your university more trendy or popular (when was the last time you saw a visibly disabled student in an Ivy League view book?), and it requires ongoing investment of time and money to keep things up to date.

It’s not sexy, trendy, fun or visible. Worse, many elite schools don’t want to admit just how many LD students they have on campus: most don’t know, since the Americans with Disabilities Act makes that information confidential unless and until a student self-discloses. But they also don’t want to deal with the stigma, of defending themselves for admitting students who can’t handle the work alone — workin
g alone being something we continue to value for obscure reasons. So many places, even if they have accessibility services, keep quiet about them. And I know very few faculty who start thinking about this at all until they, or a family member/loved one, is born, becomes, or is diagnosed as, disabled.

Of course, financial accessibility is something that is more at the top of everyone’s minds nowadays. This story in today’s New York Times features an online startup called Chegg that helps students cut their book costs by buying, reselling and renting textbooks. Financial accessibility, and perhaps cutting their own library costs, through the adoption of new technology is also how Arizona State has gotten itself sued by the National Federation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Arizona State University will be distributing course materials via Amazon’s Kindle technology, presumably to cut costs for students and maybe even to be more green. But while the new Kindle reads to you (I’m told it has a grating, non-human voice, much like other computer technology for the disabled), its menus and mechanisms are not friendly to visually disabled people, who won’t be able to make the choices necessary to choose and activate their course materials.

Okay — here’s the good news. With the exception of a few nasty comments about how selfish disabled people are (“it’s always about you, you, you, isn’t it??!?)”, I am pleased to say that a great many of the comments on this story show a great deal of understanding about accessibility as a civil rights issue, and of disabled students as valued members of our learning communities.

The more troubling news? That while the vast majority of comments are sympathetic to the rights of disabled people to be included, their well-being as individuals remains unconnected to how their full participation is of benefit to the rest of us. No, I’m not talking about diversity — although there is that. I am talking about ordinary, garden variety conversation, from which the whole community benefits in conventional ways. In other words, the goal cannot only be to support the disabled in approaching “normal;” we need some attention to how “normal” needs to be critiqued and complicated to understand why greater access to everyone’s ideas about everything was not valued enough in the first place to provide for it.

Which is how these lawsuits – which seem like an unnecessary nuisance to many well-meaning people — become the only way for disabled people to adjust their learning environment. A well-intended move by ASU (Case Western and Reed have apparently also adopted the Kindle technology), one that helps students who have difficulty accessing colleges because they are poor, has been made without attending to the mechanisms by which other students, rich and poor, are actually hampered by it. If ASU is like many other places, they have a “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” attitude. Disabled people are handled on a case-by-case basis, the wheel is reinvented for every student, and the institution itself does not fundamentally readjust its information technologies or classroom access to anticipate the needs of its students. And often, as I indicated above, they don’t have to: the savvy disabled student and her parents will have figured out what she needs and pick a college by its ability to provide those services.

But imagine the wonderful students we would all have access to if we made the investment of time and energy to think about this before we were sued?

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