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.