Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher EducationSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The final edits for this book were completed in the last few weeks of the Trump-Clinton presidential race of 2016. For much of this time it was energizing to be doing this work. It felt relevant and useful to be writing about ableism when there was a presidential candidate so overtly harnessing its rhetorical force, wrapping it in sexism and racism and xenophobia. I felt like I was writing toward an audience that, in the wake of the public repudiation of Trump, might be increasingly receptive to this book’s arguments and messages. I have been writing to reveal racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and (of course) ableism, arguing that it was all tangled and systemic and powerful and pervasive. But I took the comfortable (privileged) position that things were getting better, that the world was getting closer to something like awareness, or equity. I thought: progress is being made.
Then Donald Trump won.
In the week after Trump won, there were powerful protests against Trump on college campuses. Rudy Giuliani, a potential Trump cabinet minister, in an interview in the week following the election, reacting to these campus protests, called students “a bunch of spoiled crybabies,” and faculty “left-wing loonies” (Jaschik).
There were also examples of extreme racism, sexual harassment, and ableism in public schools, colleges, and universities. Trump supporters in Texas called for vigilantes to “go arrest & torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this Diversity Garbage” (Cardona, emphasis in the original). Another message on a flyer called diversity “a [expletive] theory” that “tries to convince us that quality no longer matters” (Cardona, emphasis in the original).
In this book, I’ve argued that universities lobby for change through the invention of specific types of student (and faculty) minds and bodies. So it is possible that the students and faculty who support the kind of inclusiveness and diversity I have been arguing for in these pages will be constructed as “loony,” “spoiled,” low quality, and much worse in the coming years, as Trump and others reshape education. As mentioned in my last chapter, the public doesn’t seem to like university administrators or professors, and also seems to dislike the students for whom success at college or university seems natural and easy. In a climate in which academia is increasingly under fire for “coddling” students, for promoting identity politics, for being too “liberal,” it will be increasingly important to better understand these critiques.
The world will have an American president who was elected despite his open mocking of disability, despite the fact that he was caught bragging on tape about sexual assault, despite the fact that he promised to deport Muslims and Mexicans, despite the fact that he has shown an allegiance to eugenic ideology (access D’Antonio), despite the fact that he ran a for-profit university himself that “the highest legal officer in New York State has described as a classic bait-and-switch scheme” (Cassidy).
Further, on February 7th of 2017, the U.S Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the 11th Secretary of Education. Quickly, DeVos moved to remove legislation aimed at holding for-profit colleges accountable for the federal funding they receive. Further, the department of education manages nearly $2 trillion in loans and grants, the largest student aid budget in its 37-year history. DeVos will be responsible for this huge economic portfolio. We know that disabled students are likely to have up to 60 percent more student debt by the time they graduate (Mohamed n.p.). If, as expected, DeVos removes the regulations and measures of accountability from that huge $2 trillion student aid portfolio, disabled students are likely to be disproportionately impacted—there will be less consequences attached to extending and elongating the path to degrees for these students, and at the same time there will be incentives attached to these elongations for lenders and educational institutions—both of whom stand to benefit financially. Thus the ways that disabled students are “marked out for wearing out” in higher education will also become the same means for lenders and for schools to profit. The managerial class on college campuses promises to expand in a world in which access to financial aid and loans is likely to become unfettered—you’ll need more executives to maximize the exploitation of these programs. It is certain that the drop in scholarship money and the general increase in student debt impacts disabled students disproportionately.
Especially chilling is that fact that DeVos and her family have clear financial ties to Performant Financial Group, a company specializing in buying bad student loans (access Douglas-Gabriel). Performant and companies like it are the vultures circling higher education.
We can also assume that the historical articulation of federal rights and protections for disabled people in education will be hurt by the appointment of Betsy DeVos. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos seemed to have little or no knowledge at all of the IDEA, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—a four-part piece of American legislation that ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education that is tailored to their individual needs. In a letter, following this dismal showing on the Senate Floor, DeVos clarified that she wants to provide students with disabilities more educational opportunities. As she has done over and over again in other moments, she praised a voucher program, this time one that helps K-12 students with disabilities attend private school funded with taxpayer dollars: “One additional strategy I will pursue is to look for ways to increase access by students with disabilities to a broader range of educational options. I have seen exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs” (qtd. in Strauss). She then went on to discuss the case of a family friend in great detail, and praised the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship program in Ohio, which gives public funds to eligible K-12 students who have IEPs (individualized education plans, crucial to access at the K-12 level) to attend the private school of their choice. That program, as well as many other voucher programs, require participating families to agree to give up special education due-process rights they are given under the IDEA law. In this way, in a letter designed to prove to Senators and the public that she understood and would defend the IDEA, she was in fact advocating for programs in which students forego these hard-fought rights (Strauss).
Currently introduced on the house floor (as of March 2017), HR 610 or the “Choices in Education Act of 2017,” proposes to fund (through block grants) elementary and secondary education only if states “comply with education voucher program requirements.” And, as the National Council on Disability has shown, “IDEA rights, as a general rule, [do] not extend to children and youth with disabilities who participate in voucher programs. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act will still apply to the administration of the voucher program but not to most activities of the private school” (Sailor and Stowe, 1). It is altogether possible that such waiving of rights could occur at the college and university level in the future. But the impact is also rhetorical: the idea is that segregation is best.
We already know that, in the U.S, some studies show that two-thirds of college students “don’t receive accommodations simply because their colleges don’t know about their disabilities” (Grasgreen n.p.). Those who do seek accommodations are likely to do so only in their third or fourth year of school. So, whatever the statistics tell us about how dire prospects might be for disabled students, the statistics only speak for the very small number of disabled students who successfully navigate the complicated accommodation process to seek help. When you introduce the idea that the best way for students with disabilities to learn is not to change their schools to become more accommodating and less ableist, but instead for students to “attend schools that meet their needs,” then we enter dangerous terrain. So far, in higher education, the inclusion of disabled students in regular classrooms, when they are included at all, has been the norm. But the U.S now has an education secretary who has only ever publicly commented on disabled students when championing segregated schools and segregated programs. We should—very unfortunately—expect these schools and programs to thrive.
Academic Ableism, indeed.
In the face of very overt and popular ableist attacks on and reshapings of higher education, I worry that allegiance to a respectable and polite form of ableist rhetoric will also be much easier. Faculty and students may continue to be rewarded for ableist apologia, for defending ableism, and thus capable of protecting the privilege of the university themselves, and retaining their positions. There will also be many reasons not to protest, not to argue for greater diversity, not to protect or organize with vulnerable students or colleagues, not to risk your own disclosures. Students and teachers will likely continue to show allegiance to the exclusions that reinforce their privilege, and show allegiance to processes that maintain that privilege. Disability on campus may thus continue to exist only as a negative, private, individual failure. The university may never be a space held responsible for causing disability. Disability may instead continue to be seen to exist prior to, to remain external to, and to be remedied or erased according to only the arm’s-length accommodations of a blameless and secure academic institution.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to do.
So what can I do? What can you do, if you care about creating a more inclusive, less discriminatory academy, one that refuses the eugenic legacy of higher education?
First, if you are about to teach, access the appendix to this book that is available on the University of Michigan Press site (www.press.umich.edu), and choose a Universal Design teaching idea and bring it into your classroom. Also, try to follow the principles of Universal Design for diversity discussed in this book.
If you are a faculty member or an administrator who might be in the powerful position of considering or supporting the disability accommodations of a colleague, or if you are ready to ask for the accommodations that you will almost undoubtedly need at some point in your career, read Margaret Price’s “It Shouldn’t Be So Hard” [https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2011/02/07/margaret_price_on_the_search_process_for_those_with_mental_disabilities] and read Stephanie L. Kerschbaum et al., “Faculty Members, Accommodation, and Access in Higher Education” [https://profession.mla.hcommons.org/2013/12/09/faculty-members-accommodation-and-access-in-higher-education/], published in Profession in 2013. In the open access version of this book, these links will be provided.
When your university launches their mental health awareness day or week, or gives you a shirt or a button or a sticker to wear for wellness, use social media, the classroom, and other venues to also question what the structural issues are on your campus that actually need attention and funding because they might even cause exclusion—rather than downloading the demand for wellness and health onto individuals.
If there are laws like the ADA or AODA governing your campus, call attention to noncompliance.
If you are about to publish something, read Carl Straumsheim’s article on guidelines for publishing accessible books, [https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/03/u-michigan-press-endorses-accessible-book-book-publishing-guidelines].
If you might be involved in hiring, read this article on creating accessible hiring practices: “Wanted: Disabled Faculty Members,” [https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/10/31/advice-hiring-faculty-members-disabilities-essay], published in Inside Higher Education in 2016.
If you are working on a syllabus, look at these examples that can help you move beyond simply retrofitting a disability “statement” onto this document:
Tara Wood and Shannon Madden, “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements,” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy [http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/praxis/tiki-index.php?page=Suggested_Practices_for_Syllabus_Accessibility_Statements]. Or spend some time on the Accessible Syllabus Project [https://accessiblesyllabus.tulane.edu/] website.
If you coordinate or administer a program, or otherwise are ready to begin to sync up your curriculum with disability accommodations that aren’t just defeat devices, access this example letter designed to help you work with the office of disability services on your campus to expand accommodations and ensure that they are actually appropriate to your teaching:
Tara Wood, Melissa Helquist, and Jay Dolmage, “Accommodation Addenda: Expanding Possibilities for Inclusion.” (www.URL TO COME)
If you are planning a conference or preparing to share your work at a conference, visit the Composing Access project [https://u.osu.edu/composingaccess/] to learn how you can make your conference and your conference presentation more accessible.
The steep steps of higher education will not easily be torn down or ramped over. The eugenic legacies that schools are built upon won’t easily be refuted and are more likely to be strongly reinforced in the coming years. The structural inequities in place before students even make their way to the approaches and the gates will be actively ignored or more deeply entrenched. But no matter what you are about to do, there are real resources to help you avoid the ableism inherent in doing so. No matter what you are about to do, the work ahead is bound to be difficult. In fact, as teachers and students we know our failures are guaranteed; but we also know they can be powerfully rhetorical, powerfully meaningful.
There will always be disabled students in your class, and disabled faculty on your campus. Such a student or faculty member may already—or in the future—be you. We must imagine a future in which disability does not need to be denied or hidden or tokenized or erased.
Universities construct themselves (or Hollywood constructs them) as perhaps the most rigid and traditional of social structures. Others want to construct universities and professors as, inversely, radical, full of special snowflakes and political partisans. The only certainty is that how teaching and curriculum are built will also shape a broader geography, a wider public, and will always be subject to design and redesign.
For reasons of space, and by choice, and because of the speed of change, this book has certainly failed to cover many relevant topics, and has certainly failed to do many, many things. But hopefully it hasn’t failed to give you ways to change higher education, starting today.