I’m a blind college teacher. There should be nothing remarkable about this. Yet my daily presence haunts the academy. At all three universities where I’ve held tenure I’ve met obstacles to my participation in everything from meetings, classroom teaching, library research, online systems, even simple sporting events. All these basic things have been largely blocked.
Bad as these stumbling blocks are, and I promise you they’re lousy, what’s worse is the extraordinary degree of ableism I’ve met over the course of my roughly thirty year teaching career. Setbacks are one thing, perhaps even to be expected (at least initially) but prejudicial behavior is worse and I’ve experienced it over and over again. I’m a well known blind person. I have managed despite these problems to achieve “senior status”—that necrotic term for full professors.
Yet I’m not a full professor at all. I’m essentially a steerage passenger on a luxury liner, one who has wandered onto the wrong deck. This analogy should be ridiculous but it isn’t.
I’m still waiting for accessible “on boarding” materials at Syracuse University though I came here six years ago. I asked for them four times. Because I’ve never received them I know less about the place where I work than almost everyone.
Getting accessible research materials in a timely way is grueling and often impossible yet I’m expected to teach as much as anyone else—oh, and also to be a leader in my field.
A colleague criticized me not long ago for speaking out about accessibility problems, saying, “you set back our reputation.”
In the meantime disabled students tell me almost weekly how they’re patronized by faculty and how difficult it is for them to get the help they need to succeed. What do I do? I complain. All too often my reward for speaking “behind the curtain” to multiple administrators about access problems is that I’m essentially conceived of as a malcontent. The eye rolling says it all: I should go back to steerage immediately.
My “non-disabled” faculty colleagues are not generally reliable allies. Even the ones who theorize disability and confront the social and economic history of disablement are seldom on the front lines when it comes to speaking up. Can’t get into the famous basketball arena with your service dog? That’s too bad. We’re all going to the game tonight.
A famous scholar once wrote about the “spoiled identity” the disabled are forced to endure—have been forced to suffer—every day. The word for this is stigma and everyone who hails from a historically marginalized background knows what it feels like. There’s a moue of unhappiness at the sight of you. Many sighted people think the blind don’t know it when it comes but we do.
Lately blind students have been filing civil rights complaints against colleges nationwide. I have not done this because I keep thinking my persistence and whatever in me passes for eloquence will pay off.
But you see, there’s the problem. I want a broad coalition of faculty to speak up.