The Ableism Machine in HIgher Ed

Yesterday I wrote on this blog that there are tons of non-disabled faculty teaching in disability related fields in higher education. I don’t have statistics. But I know from my own travels over the course of the past twenty years that the able bodied are largely the owners of the disability studies shops.
Neo-liberalism has lead to faculty freezes and in turn the once projected advent of vigorous Disability Studies programs at American Universities hasn’t happened. Where programs have materialized the majority of faculty are the non-disabled and the cripples aren’t hired.

I’m “on” about this because as G. K. Chesterton once remarked: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” Where Disability Studies is concerned we may call it a bad novel whose author is ableism mixed with cost cutting.

I should add there are very few disabled faculty teaching across the curriculum.

One may make a useful analogy as prospectus: if Women’s Studies was largely taught by old men; if African-American Studies was taught by old white men; etc.

Now truth be told, I never thought (even twenty years ago) that Dis-Studies would become a big boom. But neither did I think it would become a minor cottage industry within higher ed. Nor did I imagine that by this time we’d have so few disabled faculty in the “ranks” as they like to call it.

I wrote the following over a year ago:

I submit it’s hard to avoid growing bitter. It’s hard to feel the very apparent lack of interest in disability discrimination even from faculty who hail from other marginalized positions. No one wants to imagine disability as being intersectional. Diversity and inclusion generally doesn’t include the cripples. Because this is so, the loneliness of being disabled in the faculty ranks is considerable. Ableism is a machine for isolation and deprivation. When you say, well people of color also have disabilities people look at their watches. The great liberal fiction is that universities are welcoming. All of this came to the surface for me this morning when I read about two black professors at the University of Virginia who were denied tenure. The academy does not welcome bodies of difference and while I’m not a person of color I can say I’ve seen the discriminatory daily routines “up close and personal” and I’m getting pretty close to being worn out.

Not so long ago I was called an “ignoramus” by a fellow faculty member who was snotty to me and my white cane. I know, it’s hard to believe. Of course It is never appropriate to call anyone an ignoramus in an educational setting for the term’s antonym s are “brain “ and “genius” and its synonyms include: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll (or clodpole), clot [British], cluck, clunk, cretin, cuddy (or cuddie) [British dialect], deadhead, dim bulb [slang], dimwit, dip, dodo, dolt, donkey, doofus [slang], dope, dork [slang], dullard, dum-dum, dumbbell, dumbhead, dummkopf, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, gander, golem, goof, goon, half-wit, hammerhead, hardhead, idiot, imbecile, jackass, know-nothing, knucklehead, lamebrain, loggerhead [chiefly dialect], loon, lump, lunkhead, meathead, mome [archaic], moron, mug [chiefly British], mutt, natural, nimrod [slang], nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nit [chiefly British], nitwit, noddy, noodle, numskull (or numbskull), oaf, pinhead, prat [British], ratbag [chiefly Australian], saphead, schlub (also shlub) [slang], schnook [slang], simpleton, stock, stupe, stupid, thickhead, turkey, woodenhead, yahoo, yo-yo…

As a disabled person I know full well what the delegitimizing effects of language can do to anyone who hails from a historically marginalized background but where disability is concerned the labeling I’ve described has a particularly specious and ugly history. Idiot, moron, half-wit, dolt, cretin are all familiar to the disabled. One would expect relief from these terms at a university. What’s particularly galling is that the subject I was discussing with the professor in question was ableism—namely that I’d said hello to him on an elevator, I, a blind man with a white cane, and he simply stared at me. No acknowledgement. When two students got on the elevator he lit up and talked breezily about how he hates snow. I followed him to his office and said that by not acknowledging a blind person he creates a social dynamic that feels off-putting and I wanted to discuss the matter. He became instantly contemptuous.

Now of course that’s because of the synonyms above. In this man’s antediluvian world view the disabled really shouldn’t be in the academy. Ableism is not only more pervasive than people generally understand its also more consistent at universities than is commonly recognized.

Author: skuusisto

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

One thought on “The Ableism Machine in HIgher Ed”

  1. Dear Steve,
    I think you are brilliant and appreciate very much your willingness to publish what happens to us so often. Having just gone through one of the most ablist experiences of my professional career recently, it’s good to feel this kinship, though clearly it’s not a family that I would expect others to understand entirely from the outside. I have so much respect for all that you do.

    I will say that as a scholar of disability studies as well as Renaissance studies, I’ve been frustrated at times with non-disabled colleagues who get it wrong, but I’ve also been so encouraged and indeed supported by the temporarily able-bodied folks who get it right and help make the field more open to different perspectives. I realize this touches on difficult questions about authenticity or embodied knowledge, but as annoying as a non-disabled person’s efforts might be when they go wrong, it is more annoying when a person with a disability is ablist, which happens more often than I would like to admit. The supercrip is more of a thorn in my side than the misguided tourist for the most part. But the worst is when a non-disabled person who doesn’t even have any claim to knowing anything about disability studies (or disability for that matter) tries to tell you what it should or should not be, which has also happened to me both on the individual and institutional levels. And you are spot on about a total lack of funding or even support for disability studies–at my university, it has simply been a labor of love.

    One concequence of my recent experience of ablism is that I was most kindly supported and affirmed by grad students and junior or contingent faculty. The worst offenders have been my fellow tenured faculty, and I think it is their fault that there are not more of us in academia. If they treat me, one of their peers, in this way, then no wonder younger disabled people are not gaining entry. Nobody seems to rebuke them for their behavior, other than us, so why should they change? Until Department Chairs or other leaders or even peers are willing to speak out for us, there is no consequence for them being jackasses.



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