This past weekend was International Day of Persons with Disabilities. We decided to overview our socialization to disability, the barriers created by ableism in higher education, and moving toward accessibility in our everyday life. Let’s reconsider how we view disability and fight to make the world a more accessible and joyful place!
Reflect: How have we been socialized to react to disability?
Many kinds of disability exist in our world, including ambulatory, sensory, mental, learning, emotional, and social, with each kind having their own set of ableist barriers. As with other marginalized identities, there are strong implicit biases related to disability. One of the most fundamental ways that ableism gets reified is through implicit hierarchies of validity and acceptability.1, 2 At one end of the hierarchy are what are sometimes called “invisible” disabilities, due to a lack of “obvious” signs to the typical able-bodied person. Although all disabilities are stigmatized, invisible disabilities have the compounding effect of often being considered fake/unreal.3, 4 Even though invisible disabilities are often delegitimized, these people must overcome many of the same ableist barriers as people with disabilities that are seen as “legitimate.” Often, able-bodied people invoke “legitimate” disabilities (at the other end of the hierarchy) to make people with invisible disabilities feel bad about asking for support or accessibility – even though these able-bodied people may not advocate for people with what they would consider “legitimate” disabilities in the first place. In this way, disabilities are simultaneously considered personal failure to be admonished and tragic fates to be weaponized - all of which the disabled community pushes back against with movements like #DisabledJoy. When you think of disability, what/who do you see? Does the implicit hierarchy of disability reveal itself to you? What kinds of feelings are conjured when considering people with different disabilities? What does this tendency mean about who is seen as legitimately disabled? In what ways is this reflected in our daily lives?
Learn: Addressing Barriers for Disability in Higher Education
While there are many ways that ableism permeates higher education, we are highlighting a few ways that it appears most commonly. Many institutions barely address the physical inaccessibility of their campus,5,6 often hiding behind “historic” buildings; however, even in the construction of new buildings, consideration for ambulatory disability often follows a check-box mentality of legality, let alone consideration for sensory disabilities. In academic spaces, particularly in STEM,7,8 learning disabilities are often downplayed and demonized as laziness or inability.9,10 This stigma can cause a delay in seeking accommodations and cause people to downplay this part of their identity,11 contributing to further chances of poor academic outcomes.12 Furthermore, as discussed in a previous tip, the limited perspective of learning disabilities based on mostly white men samples13 means that accommodations requested and disability understanding in higher education do not necessarily encapsulate the experiences of women and/or people of color.14 As such, women and people of color are questioned more heavily about their disability and more likely to have their disability delegitimized.15
- Question your bias: Consider the following questions with those around you. How often do you consider different kinds of disability in your professional and personal life (outside of receiving accessibility requests)? How do you react when you are asked to accommodate disability? Does it depend on the type of disability? Is the reaction different if it is in-person or in writing? What kinds of biases and stereotypes do these dependencies reveal that you hold of people with disabilities?
- Assess your spaces: When we think of accessibility, we often think only of physical disabilities. But accessibility can and should include accommodation for all types of disability. How can you urge the institution to address gaps in disability access? How do you plan to address existing gaps in disability access in the spaces (labs, classrooms, offices) that you control? In what ways can you be proactive and act/design for accessibility? When creating a space – either constructing a new one or reimagining a pre-existing one – be intentional about creating accessibility for all. Go beyond basic legal requirements,16 create multiple options for engaging (e.g., in presentations or general spaces, don’t depend on purely visual or auditory cues),17 and recognize that not all innovations are made equal (e.g., be considerate of how inclusive things such as technology truly are).18 Ultimately, incorporating the ideas and perspectives of people with different disabilities will help you create spaces that are as accessible can be.
- Consider how policies and practices affect others: It’s easy to focus on physical barriers in higher education, but what about how our policies affect the experiences of those with disabilities. For example, the return to campus without clarity for how institutions intended to support students and staff with autoimmune disorders meant that campus was not accessible.19 When we are considering policy (particularly when it shapes success), we must take the perspective of people unlike ourselves – which includes people with different disabilities. Becoming accessibility-minded means building for all, an approach that doesn’t just help disabled people. Ensure that your policies and access focus not only on access, but also on thriving and flexibility. To start, consider the concept of Universal Design, which considers practices, policies, and environments as fundamental to accessibility!20
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book:Diverse Disabled Booklist – This list compiles children’s and adult’s books (fiction and non-fiction) of People of Color who also have a disability, including recommendations and warnings.
- Video: Disability in Higher Education: A Social Justice Approach – This video has student affairs professionals/scholars who cover taking disability beyond simple access/accommodation.
- Article:Disability as Diversity – Burke discusses how college campuses across the U.S. have (or haven’t) considered disability as an identity in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
- Podcast:Disability Dialogues – The Colorado State University Student Disability Center hosts this informative podcast about disability, access, social justice, and inclusion in higher education.
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