Three years ago, I started the column Life of the Mind Interrupted over on Chronicle Vitae to explore the ways higher education could become more humane for students, faculty, and staff with psychiatric disabilities. The column expanded over the years to encompass all disabilities, and other challenges such as addiction, grief, and more.
This blog post is my farewell to the series. But I’m here to say that the discussion isn’t over. Disability in higher education is an inevitability. And we must stop treating it like a nuisance.
Recently, we’ve had to talk about how hard it is for students to ask their professors for accommodations because professors feel this way about the conversations when students ask: “The reason I dread such encounters [when students approach for classroom accommodations] is that they have become formulaic and often defensive—distant from the actual needs and talents of the student thrusting the form at me.” How could a student possibly want to approach a professor to ask for an accessibly learning environment when a professor is already predisposed to “dread” the conversation? There is already a power imbalance. The professor already holds the control over the student’s future. What, I’m wondering, is the professor actually dreading?
Recently, the “laptop ban” controversy taught us, once again, that disabled students are a forgotten group when professors are worried about controlling their students’ behavior. As a New York Times op-ed writer showed us, disability takes the back seat in the considerations about pedagogy: “Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class. This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability. That is a loss of privacy for those students, which also occurs when they are given more time to complete a test. Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.” (The red herring about extended time was a nice touch, but recall that just because some students with certain accommodations reveal their disabilities does not mean that the professor has the right to force all students with a different accommodation to reveal theirs.)
And yet, even though these many stories are infuriating, there is hope as well. And I want to leave you with this hope, so that even though this column is at an end, you will continue to tell your stories, do your research, write your pieces and publish them. The world needs your voices to keep pushing back against the tide of ableism.
Recently, professors student up for students who must face hostile professors in asking for accommodations, across multiple publications (also here): “We live in a time where the discourse of diversity is practically a bumper sticker found in faculty orientation packets. Yet the presence of disabled students in our classrooms is too often presented as an anomalous burden, a challenge to be met. Its overarching goal? To normalize disabilities by setting them up as simple problems to be easily overcome.” But disabled students are not problems. They’re people. They’re an awful lot of people, actually, if you look at the statistics. Students will always have to face some professors who are unsympathetic to disability accommodations, sure, but there are more and more of us who are not only sympathetic, but are champions for them. Let’s continue to make our voices heard.
Recently, professors stood up for students with disabilities in the against the massive anti-technology wave that followed the (new-not-new) laptop ban piece in the New York Times, on social media and across media outlets: “While the evidence is shaky that laptops harm learning, there is real cause to believe banning laptops harms disabled students. As [interviewee] Singer told us, disabled students bear burdens of suspicion and jealousy when they’re singled out in class with a tool that other students don’t get to use.” After the New York Times piece ran, we refused to let disabled students be the scapegoats of a debate, and we centered them instead.
The point is, for every dark moment that arises in the fight for disability rights—for the humanity of disabled people—we step up—for ourselves, as disabled students and works, and for our colleagues. You step up.
That’s what I want the legacy of this column to be.
For readers interested in more on this subject, check out my recent book, Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education.