Structural Inequality at Syracuse Can Change….

Things are going badly at my university where diversity is concerned. In fact this is an understatement. The racist, ableist, homophobic, misogynistic videos from a fraternity party are chilling. Syracuse U didn’t make these videos happen; didn’t instruct fraternity boys to unleash hatred. I give the university a pass on coercion. Yet our civic space, or “agora” has long been exclusionary, toxic, and even cruel to historically marginalized students, staff, and faculty. 

Right now there’s a lot of talk about systematic change. Committees are being called. Grievance meetings are being held. They are good first steps. 

Syracuse University cannot succeed unless her administrators, staff, students and faculty have a collective and shared intellectual experience that examines bigotry in all its institutional and hegemonic ways. 

Disabled as I am, I have seen first hand how senior administrators have shrugged their shoulders when told that accommodations and access for disabled students, staff, visitors, and faculty are not easy to obtain and are often lacking altogether. 

This isn’t a new experience for me. I’ve been teaching here for 7 years and have been ignored for much of that time. Course management software not accessible? Thanks for telling us Prof. K. Ho Hum. You know of a student who failed a course because she didn’t get note taking accommodations in a timely way? Thanks for telling us Prof. K. Ho Hum. What? You can’t get access to teaching materials in accessible formats? Thanks again. Ho Ho Hum. 

7 years is a long long time to be waiting for action. Now, because of the horrid videos mentioned above the university is talking about changing its culture. 

My argument, such as it is, is that ableism is rife in the academy. Most scholars believe that education is a race and it goes to the fittest. They believe disabled people are only on campus because of the sufferance imposed by disability rights laws. How many students have come to me over the last few years sharing tales of faculty who don’t want to provide them with reasonable accommodations—extra time on tests, the ability to record lectures because they’re blind, sneering at them because owing to autism they wear noise reduction headphones in class—the list of faculty misdeeds is a long one. Then there are the senior administrators, deans, provosts, associate vice presidents, who think disability accommodations are best left to a later day. Who say to themselves, “We’ll get to that next year.” Who believe disabled students and faculty are malcontents. I know because I’ve been labeled as such. 

Ableism is built into the very buttresses of higher education. Higher Ed is a seat of privilege, merit, exceptionalism; it’s a race that goes to the swift; maybe the good looking; if you need any kind off academic help you shouldn’t be here. Unless you’re a star athlete of course. Ho Hum. I mention the athletic support system not to denigrate it, but to point out that the cost of helping disabled students isn’t the real issue—ableism assures us that the appearance of helping the disabled presents the image of a college or university with undeserving students. 

I’m not wrong about this. In his new book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education Jay Dolmage writes: “basically, academia exhibits and perpetuates a form of structural ableism.”Then he adds, and I think this is key: 

“I borrow to a certain degree from the notion of structural racism, defined by the Aspen Institute as follows:

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. (n.p.)

Likewise, ableism has to be seen as a series of entrenched structures—not just the action of an individual or of individuals. We have to understand that because of these pervasive structures, we live in a society that resists efforts to ameliorate or get rid of ableism. As scholar and activist Daniel Freeman writes, “Able-bodied people all have things that they fall short with, skills or tasks that they will never master. But when disabled folks say, ‘These are the things I need in order to do my very best,’ it is labeled as an ‘accommodation.’ . . . The language itself is ableist in nature, bringing into focus the reality of how disabled bodies are seen as barriers to able-bodied life” (n.p.). Accommodation is thought of as something that always needs to be created, something that has a cost. ”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” iBooks. 

Until the administration at Syracuse understands the structural dynamics of intersectional and pervasive delimitation the problems experienced by people who hail form historically marginalized backgrounds will persist. Let us point out that disabled students and all other minority students are paying for the opportunity to get an education. Or as one disabled student said to me yesterday, “paying for the opportunity to be treated badly.”

Moreover Syracuse can’t get better so long as its public rhetoric about disability is steeped in the lingo of 1970. Take the following passage from the School of Education’s web site on accessibility: 

Syracuse University and the School of Education are dedicated in their mission to fully include persons with disabilities and special needs. In compliance with Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Syracuse University and the School of Education are committed to ensure that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability…shall, solely by reason of disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity.”

Special needs is a term that should be tossed into the dust bin of history. As for stating the university is in compliance, that’s simply not true. Hasn’t been true. Not as long as I’ve been teaching here. 

On the matter of “special needs” I like what activist Erin Human has to say:

Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when we require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on. 

That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s our right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires us to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants us equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.

The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.

To make a metaphor of it, imagine taking a brand new car and submerging it in a lake. The car is disabled; there’s nothing wrong with the car itself, it still does everything it’s designed to do, but it cannot operate in its current environment. If were in an environment well suited to its needs and purposes, like say a road, it would be able to do all the things a car does.

The current environment at Syracuse University, ironically the first college in the United States to offer a disability studies program needs to change for everyone to operate, not merely suited to his or her or they needs and purposes, but with dignity. 

Author: skuusisto

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

2 thoughts on “Structural Inequality at Syracuse Can Change….”

  1. Thanks for being public and writing this series. When my son went to the local community college to ask for various accommodations (he has various learning and hearing (CAD)disabilities), he had the same problems that you described. He did get his AA in four years after flunking several courses two times before passing. (Lack of accommodations).


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