And Another Thing Too…

You know how sometimes you forget to write somebody an email, because you’d already responded to it in your own head? I did something not unlike that yesterday, in my post re: Tenured Radical’s piece on disability. It just now dawned on me that two of the most basic and important points I had to make in that post never actually manifested themselves, because they are so central to who I am, what I study, and my life experience, that I felt like I’d written them. I didn’t.

For those of you who can’t read my mind… here it goes.

As I hope my last post on this subject made clear, I think it’s very important that students be proactive and responsible. I’ve always told my students—regardless of their ability status—that if you don’t advocate for yourself, then it’s unlikely anybody else will either. I’m all about empowering undergraduates to get the accommodations they need, and to kick ass and take names when the occasion calls for it.

It’s important, though, to remember that ability isn’t a static thing. I, for example, had been living with a disability for a grand total of five months when I showed up on the Bryn Mawr campus. I was totally healthy, until one day a doctor told me I wasn’t. Educators cannot and should not assume that every student reporting a disability on a college campus has a condition that is (a) under control, and (b) a longstanding part of their life. This is true of most kinds of disabilities, but is especially important re: mental health issues.

NB: regardless of your current ability status, *you* need to be thinking about these issues. Barring sudden death, we will all experience impairment of one kind or another over the course of our lives. It’s all well and good to empower students with disabilities, but they aren’t the only ones who need this knowledge. Until our education system gives disability studies the space it deserves, this means we need disability service centers on college campuses to be well-staffed, generously funded, and integrated into campus culture.

And another thing too…

My first year of college—fun though it was—was also incredibly taxing. I still needed a LOT of pain medicine just to get around, and the majority of my weekends were spent flat on my back, recovering from my myriad attempts to have a “normal” college experience (which, nerd that I was, basically meant going to class). I wasn’t trying to figure out what services I was entitled to… I was trying to figure out how to be okay.

Could I have been a better advocate for myself? Honestly, no. I was too busy learning how to live with a disability. Which is why having a really great Disability Services Coordinator was so important. I could go to her with my inchoate concerns and she’d translate them into something concrete and actionable.

So yes, empower students with disabilities to fight for themselves, but keep in mind that being an ally sometimes means stepping in so that the student in question can focus on being a student for a while.

And another thing too…

Did I mention that I served as Editor in Chief for Trans-Scripts most recent volume: “Constructing (Dis)Ability?”

I totally did that. If you’d like to see some wonderful academic writing on ability from faculty and grad students alike, check it out.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

My (Very) Hastily Written Response to Tenured Radical

Claire Potter of Tenured Radical wrote a very nice piece today (yesterday on the East Coast) entitled “Do Attendance Policies Discriminate Against Disability?” in response to some well-earned criticism she’d received on a previous post. I wanted to respond to this most recent article at length for two reasons: (1) because, as my last post made clear, these are issues around which I have a good deal of experience, and (2) because I think it’s really important to point out that asking questions is a really good thing. When Potter ended her post by asking her readers what she was missing, I did a mental happy dance. Before you read the rest of this post, I want to urge you to read the piece that inspired it. Also, read the comments. This is one of those rare times that doing so is really worthwhile.

Okay… now that you’re done, I want to throw a few thoughts into the mix. First though, a few disclaimers:

  • I wrote this post unusually quickly.
  • This post includes things I want “able-bodied” faculty and admins to know, but it’s also got advice for folks with disabilities in it too. I don’t think it’s especially confusing, but it’ worth keeping in mind.
  • This post is not all encompassing, and I imagine I’ll be writing on this subject for a long time
  • My ability status has fluctuated quite a lot, so while I feel like I know how to make my way in the world while living with a disability, I don’t feel comfortable identifying as “disabled.” I think of myself more as “temporarily able-bodied,” except when I’m not… like right freakin’ now, for example. (See my last post for the details)
  • I want to be VERY clear that everybody’s experience is different, and that I can really only speak with authority about MY *mobility* issues. I do not speak on behalf of people with disabilities.

Now, in responding to this piece, I’m writing from a fairly unique position. In the past ten years (including right now) there have been four different times that I’ve required accommodations as a result of physical impairment, first at the (private) high school I attended, second at Bryn Mawr (a small liberal arts college, or SLAC), and twice now as a graduate student at UC Irvine.

Potter points out that oftentimes SLACs, cuddly though they are in many ways, are also fairly inhospitable climates for people with disabilities. While this can certainly be true, it is not always the case. Bryn Mawr did a really good job taking care of me. I was the hall advisor on “the accessible hall,” so I lived alongside several other people with mobility impairments. (Yes, we were all kind of lumped together, but it was nice to have a next door neighbor who “got it,” and there were plenty of folks on the hall who didn’t have mobility issues. The only people who thought of it as “the accessible hall” were the folks who… needed an accessible hall.) If my memory serves me correctly, we all did pretty well. Of course, it sucked that some of the historic buildings were inaccessible, but the campus culture was extremely sensitive to accessibility issues. I can honestly say that I never heard anybody—students included—complain about an event being moved, or a class being held in a different building. It’s hard for resentment like that to exist in a community where you know practically everybody. I also never heard “I’m sorry, we just can’t do that” at Bryn Mawr, but I have heard it at UCI… so there you go.

Another good tip Potter offered was that people with disabilities should, if at all possible, tour college campuses to get a sense of the accessibility situation. That is great advice, but the most important thing to do is have a conversation—in person or on the phone—with the person you’re going to be interacting with in Disability Services. If the institution you’re planning to attend focuses on meeting legal requirements and little else, it’s not going to be a good place for you. In the same way that you’re supposed to shop for a doctor, you need to shop for an on-campus advocate. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Disability Services Coordinator at Bryn Mawr, and she made my life significantly easier.

Side note: this is another double-edged sword for SLACs; in my case, the one person charged with making sure I and every other student with a disability got accommodations was a total rock star. Had she not been a rock star, those four years could have sucked. There are plenty of tradeoffs at big schools too: you’re less likely to have a personal relationship with your coordinator, and there’s a lot more in the way of paperwork and red tape to deal with. The campuses are also bigger. So pick your poison. I definitely prefer the former. I was also lucky enough to receive boatloads of financial aid to attend both high school and college, so… coming from a place of privilege.

Speaking of red tape, it can be really hard to know what you’re going to need to get through college, and how exactly to go about getting it. Because college is a new life experience, it necessarily brings up new issues for which one is unprepared. The most important accommodation I had in the course of my undergraduate career wasn’t about where my classes were or attendance policies, or even being excused from classes during inclement weather. No… turned out I really needed a new mattress every year. Can’t say I’d seen that coming when I was getting myself ready to go to college. What your students need may surprise you, but keep in mind that it may also surprise them.

Less surprising: I don’t know if this is true everywhere, and the situation could be unique to students I’ve taught, but I’ve been led to believe that visiting students with disabilities don’t always get the same kind of institutional support from disability services that the rest of the student community receives. So if you’re planning to study abroad—in the US or elsewhere—make sure you know what the institution you’re visiting will (and won’t) do to accommodate you, and what forms of documentation they need from you to do so.

I would talk about the perils of relying on documentation to determine ability status, but that’s already been done beautifully by Emma Whetsell in the comments section of the original article. Props to you, Emma.

Also, if you’re a course instructor, PLEASE mention disability services on the first day of class. Students absolutely should be proactive about getting the accommodations they need, but your mentioning it doesn’t just encourage them, it helps normalize and validate human difference in a way that is vitally important. A lot of instructors work hard to reduce the stigma around mental health services on campus; we need to do the same for disability services.

I’m going to close this meandering blog post by (1) saying another big thank you to Claire Potter for responding to this issue in such a respectful way, and (2) by reminding everybody out there in the humanities and social sciences that ability is a really really important and underutilized lens of analysis. We need to accommodate students, but we also need to integrate Disability Studies into our syllabi. If what we teach is a reflection of our values, the academy still has quite a lot of work ahead of it on this particular score.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.