Disabling the Academy

Each day the university disables itself. Note, the university does not “crip” itself. Systematic conceptual alienation requires a ruling class. And no irony please.  

Let those with disabilities who labor in higher education not acidulate the drink. Thomas Paine wrote: “Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” 

The disabled university is ubiquitous. I’ve traveled to hundreds of schools. Here are the things I’ve seen (and recently):

Segregation of disability. “Specialized” offices of disability services where the tainted students must appear like scofflaws. (The environment matters: at the University of Iowa the disability services center is in the basement of a dormitory. If it’s hard to find maybe people won’t use it. Oh. There’s no way out from the basement in case of a fire. Hmm. Let’s have a seven year committee. 

At Syracuse the disability services office is on the top of a building. At least they have windows up there.

The academy disables itself. Failed architectures and insufficiency of imagination always speak the tacit unspoken phrase: “your body is a problem.” 

Never will you hear the phrase “our bodies” for the aim of the disabling university is to commit and recommit the Benthamite claim that crippled bodies are a drain on resources. In this way the disabling academy repackages the reveries of Fascism.

Do not make the mistake of subsituting “outlier” bodies for “disabled bodies” for universities spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attract superior athletes whose physiques are more uncommon to the experiences of general humanity than any person with a learning disability. Even though athletic bodies are invariably the greatest embodied resource drain in American higher education you won’t hear objections from administrators. But you will hear grousing about the crippled students and the resources they hoover up. Here are things I’ve actually heard on campuses:

Disability is an unfunded mandate. (For disability substitute disabled students.)
If we admit too many learning disabled students our academic ranking will decline. 
It costs too much to have an ADA Coordinator. Can’t the Title IX person handle this?
I think these LD students are looking for an easy way to take the test.
I don’t have to teach differently because there’s a disabled student in my class.
Do we really have to put accessible bathrooms in the library? 
These people are often mentally ill—they might be dangerous.
College wouldn’t cost so much if we didn’t have to have “these services”.
If they can’t keep up they shouldn’t be here. 

Note these utterances are contemporay and not recollections from twenty five years ago. 

When the university disables itself it is engaging in social fraud. Illusions are OK in Romantic poetry or marketing classes but they’re destructive where the body politic is concerned. Let’s do some simple arithmetic. 

There are 60 million disabled people in the United States. That’s one fifth of the general population. Taken alone the statistic isn’t generative—that is, it doesn’t suggest much. One may say: “Well, that means there are 260 million people who don’t have disabilities.” (This is the general subconscious reaction by able bodied exceptionalists.) 

But each disabled person has relatives and friends. Even a sophomore marketing student will grasp the implications of this. 

Some years ago my wife and I ran a series of workshops for employees at Sandals and Beaches vacation resorts in Jamaica. We said you should never view a disabled person as a singularity. We pointed out disabled people have discretionary spending. They may choose to take vacations. When they do they’ll bring friends. The point was, and is: there are no outlier disabled bodies.  

Higher education continues to imagine disability as liability. Students, staff, and faculty with disabilities experience this in hundreds of ways but the most singular effect is the “us vs. you” motif of grudging and systematic alienation. Disability is not a sub-set of culture. If 1/5 of America is disabled and that fifth has relatives and friends then 3/5 of America is touched by disability and the final fifth is probable.

The academy disables itself. 

Us is all of us. We don’t need specialized offices and special tickets. Dare I say it? That stuff belongs in the last century.