I wish I could say I have had better experiences as a crip* in higher education. In actuality, it has been very difficult. Ableism, the hatred and discrimination directed against disabled people, is found throughout society in every cultural institution. The education system is no exception, nor are colleges and universities in particular. I am a person from a working-class family, a first-generation college student, a transgender person, an asexual person, and a person of size. Despite all these challenges and forms of discrimination, none of them prepared me for being a crip. While I don’t like to rank forms of oppression, there is an existential nature to being disabled that is very unique in its vastness.
In this narrative, I will detail some of the challenges I have faced in academia as a disabled person. The hashtag #EverydayAcademicAbleism inspired me to write this piece. In fact, I sent out some tweets under that hashtag. It felt empowering both to write my tweets and to read the tweets composed by many other people. The ubiquity of the tweets reminded me that I am not alone. There are many people: students, faculty and staff alike that are affected by systemic ableism in the academy.
Unfortunately, I am in a Department that is not disability-accessible. There is no elevator that goes up to the second or third floor in Huddleston Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Believe me, it is not lost on us that Women’s Studies is not in an accessible space. We preach social justice and feel terrible that we are located in an inaccessible space. It makes us seem like hypocrites, but it is not the fault of Women’s Studies. It is a systemic problem because there are multiple buildings that are on campus that are still not accessible. This includes academic buildings and residence halls. Because I have a mobility disability that makes climbing stairs difficult to impossible, as well as walking long distances difficult to impossible, it was necessary to move my office. In essence, I was ripped out of my home department and the company of my colleagues due to the inaccessibility of the office space.
My first move was down stairs to the first floor of Huddleston. There was an office available for one semester due to a faculty member leaving. There is an elevator to the first floor but it is for kitchen work/catering of the Huddleston Hall Ballroom. Thus, I always risked taking the elevator into a lavish affair and had to be careful not to do that! It was a nice office but I was only there for 6 months. Next, I was moved to Horton in an office with bright blue walls made of cement. There was a window and a small couch in it. There was also an elevator but there were still other problems.
In addition to needing an elevator, I also need classrooms for the courses that I teach to be as near to my office as possible. In addition to stairs, walking long distances is very difficult for me, particularly when carrying various items. Thus there was never any guarantee of close classrooms and there was a lot of back and forth between our Women’s Studies admin and the registrar, who controls classroom space.
After one year in Horton, which was being renovated for the history department, I was given the boot once again. This time I was moved to Conant which is one of the most decrepit buildings on the whole campus. Although it has an elevator, the office was very run down and old. I tried to make the most of it but found the space depressing to say the least. The elevator had bright, blood-red walls, which reminded me of something out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The office had no A/C and was dreary to be in with limited light.
My fifth and current office is an office on the ground floor of the newly renovated Ham Smith. My new office is very nice and I am happy to be in it. I really hope I do not have to leave. The office is accessible with an elevator, a bridge to Dimond Library, a gender-inclusive restroom and many classrooms. We are now in the process of trying to make it a permanent thing that my classrooms are always in Ham Smith. As you can see, getting the accommodations I need has been challenging. While I enjoy my office I miss being with my colleagues and wish they could be moved to Ham Smith along with me.
This odyssey brings me to another topic: loneliness and alienation in academia. To put it bluntly, it can be very lonely to be a crip. Our bodies and minds are often different from the “norm.” Often we cannot hide our difference, although some of our disabilities are invisible. Recently my disability has become more severe and I feel literally to be lost in the shuffle. I walk much slower than other people. I can’t do stairs. I have to use ramps and elevators. I am sometimes astounded as I watch people: walk so quickly and run, jump, leap, ride bikes of various kinds, skateboard, bound across campus without effort. As is so often the case, they take their able-bodiedness for granted. I cannot do the things that they do and I sometimes feel a level of sadness about it. It is so hard to be disabled, as it affects every facet of your life. In addition to my mobility disabilities, I have psychiatric disabilities and multiple chronic illnesses. It is a lot to juggle and my heath is always in the forefront of my mind.
It is easy to feel apart from colleagues and students because we are not supposed to talk about disabilities. Disability is cloaked in silence. Being a crip is my everyday life but not in my everyday conversation. This helps to fuel the loneliness and the invisibility of being a crip.
To make change we need to not only make every single space on campus thoroughly disability-accessible, but we must talk about disability, making it a regular topic of conversation in our meetings and help to foster relationships between disabled people on campus: students, faculty and staff. We need to make sure events are truly accessible and welcoming to disabled folks. As an example, my chair moved our department meetings to Ham Smith so it is possible for me to attend. I am thankful for the help I have gotten at our institution. I don’t want it to seem like it has all been negative because there are people trying to help. The problem is not with individuals but it is systemic. Systems needs to change for the benefit of disabled people. At the same time, we have a long way to go to become a more inclusive institution and one that truly values its disabled community members. I hope we all work together to change the campus climate to address ableism and become as accessible as possible.
* Crip is a term used by some disabled people that has been reclaimed. It should not be used by non-disabled people.