Ableism, the Academy, and Good Old Jean Jacques Rousseau

The poet W. H. Auden wrote: “Educational theory begins when society has become differentiated, when different classes are living so differently, and doing such different things that the question arises: ‘What shall we teach and to whom?’”

I have been in mind of this straightforward question for some time now, especially as I’ve been wrestling with the deficiencies of my own education, and in particular how that education relates to disability. As Auden might have it: ‘What was I taught and who did those teachers imagine I was?’”

The answers depend upon whether or not you believe the nature of society is static—which is to say whether you think social relations where disability is concerned are changeable. Here I am piling a question on a question. Can disability ever slip the knots of ableism and be understood as a fully dignified dynamic of cultural life? (I take it as given that disability is no better or worse than any other fact of life.)

Okay. Since I don’t think society is static, at least since the time of Rousseau (everywhere we are in chains, post-innocent, and humankind is collectively capable of freedom) I think disability rights are a barometer of progress. Civil rights reflect modernity’s belief that all individuals are unique. After Freud all people are unique. If so, then good old Jeffersonian law must assure our unique equality.

Now imagining the law could guarantee my dignity was foolish yet I’ve been guilty of this variegated disappointment, of letting it get to me, for a long time now. How long? Since the mid 1980’s when the Americans with Disabilities Act was being built. Like millions of disabled in the U.S. I thought the adoption of civil rights meant throwing off chains. I allowed myself to believe this. I know I’m not alone.

And here is where my education failed me, my high modernist, early post-modernist, calculating small “d” democratic, structuralist-psychoanalytic education—it failed me. Teachers failed me. I was allowed to believe the law could take the place of civics. Of civics I was taught nothing save that every citizen will be equal under the law. Here is the specific failure: I was taught that individualism is the core of identity, that identity is the well spring of citizenship, and that laws will take care of equality. Of course I read Foucault. I understood the precarity of life under the state, saw how language can and often does fail us.

Nothing in my education prepared me for structural ableism.

For years I’ve allowed myself to believe that my eloquence, my irony, my belief in the law, would mean success where disability is concerned, and by this I mean “as lived” and by this I mean “in the workplace” and accordingly I have been navigating without some important details.

You see I thought the law and self-declared dignified individualism were all I needed. These things are not without their importance, but they weren’t enough.

I’ve been physically assaulted in the workplace; denied accommodations; told during meetings that my need for accessible materials would slow down progress; told to “get in line” behind other non-disabled faculty when I needed sighted help in the form of a grad assistant; been lectured to by so many overtly ableist administrators about the difficulty of disability—how it gums up the works of the system—this is a long list, forgive me—and in all cases I imagined my capacity to be clear, direct, and persistent would solve the problem. That was my deficiency. From my mid thirties onward, believing overmuch in the ADA and the power of my language, I failed to see how profoundly ableism cuts down the disabled, even in the most self-declared progressive work spaces. Yes it’s a matter of note I’ve been making my way in higher education.

Boo hoo for me, didn’t everything I ever read about oppression allow me to see the deep and broad discriminatory practices in the big bad world? Of course. But my mistake was to think, to allow myself to think that equality for the disabled had come.

How foolish I feel. Worse, how beleaguered I am after years of being treated badly as a disabled student and scholar.

Ableism is ubiquitous. Higher education is rife with it. It’s in the street. It’s on the bus. It’s in every corner of the civic square. It is an unholy master in the world of American medicine. Ableism is shrugs, hoots, snickers, red tape, ugly information technology, badly designed airplanes, inaccessible voting places. It’s what’s for breakfast.

Ableism is worse today than when the ADA was adopted. Like the brutal renaissance of racism and misogyny and homophobia it’s out and its everywhere.

It exists in the classrooms, the technology labs, the science classes, the lecture halls. It is so customary in higher ed that it’s no wonder three quarters of students with disabilities who matriculate to college never graduate.

And ableism exists in the silence of non-disabled faculty who know how ugly it is for students and staff who believed modernity’s promise, post-Freud, that they could also be individuals.




Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

One thought on “Ableism, the Academy, and Good Old Jean Jacques Rousseau”

  1. I understand this completely. As a retired editor of policy manuals at ASU, I saw a policy change from assisting students with disabilities in case of emergencies to making it incumbent upon the disabled person to recruit fellow students for assistance. I retired 5 years ago, so I do not know if much has changed. Although not a faculty member, I interacted with many over 15 years. I believe the workplace atmosphere of academia is toxic, often brutal, often astonishingly aggressive–not unlike publishing houses and civic bureaucracy. The current social and political atmosphere has intensified this, especially for “vulnerable” persons. I have not known your work before seeing it re: the writers’ conference at ASU; I hope to meet you there.


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