What If Higher Education Imagined Disability as Being Valuable in Our Economy?

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

Disability has meant for me a life of painful encounters. From childhood right up until yesterday (today will have to wait) people in authority have told me that my blindness is a problem—my efforts to get a Ph.D. in literature were crushed by faculty at the University of Iowa who didn’t like my requests for additional time to read books; my presence in public school pre-ADA was a relentless horror show; life as a faculty member in American universities has meant a nearly continuous struggle for the most basic accommodations as if groveling and beseeching administrators and fellow faculty to help me gain access is appropriate and to be expected. If you’re disabled in the world of higher education and you want dignity you should go somewhere else. And of course there is nowhere else. There’s no utopian place for disability in this society.

Like a farmer who looks for signs that autumn seeds are coming up in spring I look for progress. Corporations and businesses in these United States are starting to imagine disability as not only important, but lucrative, which is to say there’s some hope. Hope is essential of we’re ever going to reduce the shameful unemployment rates of disabled people in this country and abroad. Joblessness in the disability community still hovers around 70%. I suspect the figure might be microscopically lower when we consider the disabled workers who hide their disabilities in the workplace. I know of a professor right now who is hiding her disability so she can get tenure. Ableism is ugly, monolithic, cruel, and yes, soul crushing. But there’s hope.

The Disability Employment First Planning Tool created by a consortium of advocacy organizations and which is designed to help businesses take active steps toward hiring employees with disabilities is one such sign of hope. Organizations like OurAbility in New York are using AI to help applicants and employers connect.

But much more needs to be done. In particular colleges and universities need to take up disability employment as a focus area. Let’s “lose” the 1970’s model of grudging accommodations for disabled students and promote disability “maker’s spaces” entrepreneurship, and yes, the advantages of our rapidly changing technologies.

I for one would like to see the university where I currently teach (Syracuse) develop a disability and entrepreneurship program. It would be lead by the disabled following the model of “nothing about us without us”—that wonderful slogan for the disability rights movement; the disabled should be in charge. There is currently no program in the US at any college or university that supports and promotes disability leadership and entrepreneurship.

Hope. Spring seeds perhaps?

Author: skuusisto

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

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