I’ve just returned home from the University of Iowa (where I used to teach) and where I saw my stepdaughter Tara Connell graduate with her master’s from their “Speech Pathology” program. Tara’s intention is to work with autist kids and I couldn’t be prouder of her. She’s worked tirelessly to achieve a goal—a noble pursuit—for she wants to make the lives of others better. I’m not certain this moral commitment can be taught though certainly much else can. And so, sitting in the vast basketball arena at Iowa I reflected on how Tara has grown; how she’s gracefully absorbed the examples of the many adults in her life who’ve devoted their careers to helping people with disabilities. (Her mom was for many years a guide dog trainer, as was her father.)
Tara’s accomplishment can’t be diminished by architectures and deleterious administrations. But if you were a person with a disability at Iowa’s commencement and you desired a seat, perhaps with your family, you were out of luck. One of the reasons I left the U of Iowa was the institutions general and ubiquitous unconcern for people with disabilities. The disability seating in the “Carver Hawkeye Arena” is pre-ADA seating, at the top of the stadium; so far from the action you might as well stay home.
While I was in Iowa I checked Facebook and saw my friend Bill Peace was attending his son’s graduation from Hofstra. Bill is a wheelchair user—nay, an athlete on wheels, but nevertheless, his seating for Hofstra’s commencement was every bit as disgraceful as Iowa’s arrangement.
Now this isn’t a scientific sampling. Two parents with disabilities, two campuses, but ask yourself about academic culture and disability. Iowa’s student services office for disabilities is located in the basement of a dormitory where people with wheelchairs can’t in fact “get out” if there’s a power failure. The architectural and administrative message couldn’t be clearer: disability is a ghetto; its marginalized; its not important for the able bodied general administrative population to think about. Iowa’s commencement platform was up high, with two sets of stairs. No effort was made to make the event accessible should there have been a wheelchair user in the ceremony. (Of course they’d have “come down” from the platform and handed a diploma to the wheelchair student, if they’d been asked.) Meanwhile, the graduate dean at Iowa spoke moistly about how important veterans are to the university. One wonders what kind of veterans he imagines.
Disability is part of everything, not a sub-rosa category of citizenship. But you wouldn’t know it if you’d visited Iowa or Hofstra this past weekend. Shame on these two schools.
Back to Tara. Despite the abeyance and distillations of disability evident, sometimes even in her own curriculum, she believes autists’ lives can be marvelous. She sees promise. She presumes competence. Nothing could be finer. And nothing is more important as a cultural motto. Like the golden rule it works for everyone.