Bullying, Ableism, and Higher Ed

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

Some things are simple. For instance there are only three types of bullies. The first is a soloist. He (or she or they) gets you in a corner when no one else is around. This is the weakest bully for he fears group opinion.

The second kind is like Vladimir Lenin. He’s a public speaker. Draws a crowd. Exhorts the mob. He can either be a satirist who humiliates you in front of others or he can be the instigator of violence. Donald Trump was this type.

Number three is an apparatchik. Think Henry Kissinger. He’s a system man. Works behind the scene. Knows the ropes. Controls the bullies above. In addition to Kissinger one can add Putin and Ho Chi Minh to this group. And of course your average gym teacher.

Group three is often the most articulate. They can sound reasonable. One thinks of Robert E. Lee saying: “Never do a wrong thing to make a friend–or to keep one.” My oh my!

As a disabled guy I’ve met all three, sometimes in the course of a day. As a blind college professor I’ve met #3 rather often, and though it pains me to say it, he, she, or they is often another professor. I’ve written extensively on this blog about ableism in the faculty ranks.

Ableism is at its core “discrimination in favor of able bodied people.” Ableism is seldom consciously designed, indeed one may say it occurs as a sin of omission. At the university we know we should provide accessible teaching and work environments, even extracurricular ones, but we seldom manage to do so. We kick the can down the road whether the issue is accessible software and websites or an accommodation for a student, staff member, or campus visitor.

Ableism doesn’t have to be fully conscious. Like racism, homophobia, misogyny, it works from a set of assumptions. The first is that disability is someone else’s problem—a holdover from Victorian society which created specialized hospitals and asylums for the disabled. We still believe in higher education that there should be a sequestered office that “handles” disability which in turn means most deans, faculty, and administrators in central administration have a collective mind set that the disabled are both a problem and they belong to someone else. Jay Dolmage’s book “Academic Ableism” provides a clear overview of how this dynamic works.

The second assumption is that all disabled people are singular and they’re all medical problems—defective patients who couldn’t be cured. This medical model of disability creates a set of cascading metaphors but the most insidious of them is the idea that a student, staff member, visitor with with a disability who needs an accommodation is a solitary, individual “problem” which in turn means they’re not respected and valued.

I’ve been told as a blind faculty member to “line up behind other faculty” when I needed a sighted graduate assistant—that is, my need for an accommodation was viewed as something out of the ordinary, a matter of competition with non-disabled faculty, and yes, an unwelcome problem. If that was a unique event one might say something like “it’s all in a day…tomorrow will be better….” Pick your own bromide. But in my own case the negative assumptions about accommodations have been legion.

A sin of omission happens when we know we should do better, care for others, direct ourselves toward goodness but we manage not to do it.

Ableism is merely one product of this failing.

Why do so many universities fail to include disability in their efforts to foster diversity consciousness?

One answer is that the inherited competitive structures and ethos of higher education rewards Bully #3 and admires him.

Author: skuusisto

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

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