A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education


vintage photo of Victrola with listening dog

I have lately been reading "Helen Keller: A Life" by Dorothy Herrmann. The following passage jumped out at me:

It was largely a lonely triumph. As the twenty-year-old Helen soon discovered, college was not the "romantic lyceum" that she had envisioned. At Radcliffe, which had been forced to accept her as a student, she was more profoundly aware than ever before of her blindness and deafness. Only one of her classmates knew the manual finger language. Another girl had learned to write Braille, copying as a present Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, but Helen never heard from her after graduation. The other students tried to be friendly whenever they saw her at a local lunchroom, and according to Helen, "Miss Sullivan spelled their bright chatter into my hand." But she was painfully aware of the gulf between them, even though her classmates tried to bridge the gap by such lavish, awkward gestures as buying her a Boston terrier, which she promptly named Phiz. Presumably the dog would compensate her for what they were either too timid or too busy to give and what she secretly longed for: "the warm, living touch of a friendly hand."

And here's another revealing passage:

Of Helen's professors, only one, William Allan Neilson, who later became the president of Smith College, took the time to master the manual finger language so he could communicate directly with her. As Arthur Gilman was closely associated with the college, she and Annie were politely ignored by the rest of the faculty and administration, including the autocratic Agnes Irwin, the dean of Radcliffe, and the august Dr. Charles W. Eliot, the head of Harvard.

The snub did not surprise Annie, who was still furious about the plot at the Cambridge School to separate her from Helen. "I would much prefer to have people despise me as they certainly would if they guessed how full of distrust and contempt my heart is towards my fellow beings," she wrote to Hitz. "I know it pains you to hear me speak in this way and doubtless it will hurt you still more to have me write it: but I want you to know just how detestable I am. I find people hateful and I hate them. Mr. Gilman seemed to me a fair specimen of our noble race. . . ."

"Radcliffe did not desire Helen Keller as a student," Dean Irwin later explained to an interviewer. "It was necessary that all instruction should reach her through Miss Sullivan, and this necessity presented difficulties. They were overcome and all went well if not easily."

Helen was wounded whenever her classmates passed her on the stairs and in the lecture halls without a sign of acknowledgment. Most of her teachers were "impersonal as Victrolas," she recollected years later, and "the professor is as remote as if he were talking through a telephone."


I have a recurring sense that the realities of campus life for people with disabilities may not have changed much when it comes to what we nowadays call "inclusiveness" in higher education. We have laws of course, and assistive technologies, and surely we do better at providing reading materials in alternative formats. Yet for all that I think that at far too many colleges and universities in these United States one will find that where disability is concerned the faculty and administrators are still "impersonal as Victrolas". One need only visit the web site LD Online for an overview of the struggles that students with learning disabilities have faced and continue to face as they struggle to gain accommodations in the classroom. Or one can visit the U.S. Department of Justice page and see findings against American colleges and universities. See in particular Duke University but also Chatham University or University of Michigan or Swarthmore College or Colorado College or Millikin University or University of Chicago–each of these cases of discrimination against students or staff with disabilities is fairly representative of the landscape in post-secondary education–what we might call the "Autocracy of the Victrola" if you will. And if you believe (as I surely do) that these problems start earlier, you can visit the DOJ's web pages on school district discrimination settlements.

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let's leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)

A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation's institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they "do" they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

In the meantime there are autocratic talking machines aplenty. One senses their steady banishment to the attics of history. Those of us who labor in higher education should do all we can to grease the skids.













0 thoughts on “A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education

  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Georgia, even simple behaviors are complex enough that most of the time we must rely on automatic behaviors and responses to complete even fairly simple interactions. Eye contact is a fairly primary cue to signal the initiation of verbal communication. So if two people approach, you’ll tend to automatically talk first to the one who visually engages you. Dale Carnegie teaches that to car salespeople, and it can give them an edge over the nearer, yet less visually attentive salespeople on the showroom floor.
    On my 40th birthday, Ruben Hernandez took me out to lunch. The waiter asked me what the two of us would like to order. Ruben then interjected in Spanish (as best I could follow) that his dear friend was celebrating a birthday today, and he would like to know what menu items the waiter would recommend that she would especially enjoy. Oh, and then the two of them were suddenly bosom buddies endlessly chatting away. I realized ruefully that, in one game-changing moment, Ruben’s blind Latino macho card had easily trumped my eye-contact Gringo woman card. I settled back into marginalized social passivity to await my meal.


  2. I am not much of a political animal, so react to this wonderful post on a much more personal level, to wit: there were two new parishioners in church today, a woman maybe a shred older than I, and her daughter. The older woman appeared to be blind, and I am embarrassed to say that for a split-second I almost forgot to shake her hand and say hello–even though I’d just greeted her daughter. People with disabilities have enough to handle with out the rest of us being assholes, and today I skated perilously close to sphincter status.


  3. Hi Steve, I just came across your blog, and it is very interesting. The Iowa Department for the Blind recently collaborated with Mary Swander’s poetry class at ISU to help raise awareness about disabilities through poetry. Mary, you may know, is very keen on increasing disability awareness and is very supportive of the Iowa Dept. for the Blind and its mission. We were able to educate 40 undergrads through their classwork and spread their knowledge to the general public. A very cool event. You might want to check out the results: http://www.idbonline.org/newsroom/poetry-goes-beyond-words
    This project will likley go on the road throughout Iowa, so if it comes to Iowa City, you should definitely check it out.


  4. Great post. I totally agree. There is so much stigmatism in general still. At a very famous college near to us, there are all these signs of the person in a wheelchair that point to alternative entrances, but lead nowhere or to stairs!!! They make a good show of it. As an organizational psychologist I see this lack of access, masked by many pretty blue signs, as a symbol, an artifact of how things might really work there. I don’t go or teach there, but I have taken Ellie in her chair for a walk there and it’s not obvious what to do via the many signs that are supposed to direct us, and in fact did to many sets of stairs….


  5. Great post. Students with disabilities encounter discrimination at colleges and universities nationwide. I find this deeply troubling as higher education is supposed to be populated by educated, liberal, and understanding people. The reality s much different. Worse yet there are precious few professors with disabilities that serve as role models and advocates for students. And to this I may add texts about and by authors with a disability are absent. No wonder higher education is hostile to the inclusion of people with a disability.


  6. Hey Steve, Just read this and thought that people with disabilities are not just “our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues”, but our future selves. If for no other reason than self interest, it behooves us all to understand with a passion that disability awareness expands human possibilities for all of us