Thirty for Thirty on the ADA: A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education

As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.

Essay Six: “A Largely Lonely Triumph: Disability and Contemporary Higher Education”

I have lately been reading “Helen Keller: A Life” by Dorothy Herrmann. The following passage jumped out at me:

“It was largely a lonely triumph. As the twenty-year-old Helen soon discovered, college was not the “romantic lyceum” that she had envisioned. At Radcliffe, which had been forced to accept her as a student, she was more profoundly aware than ever before of her blindness and deafness. Only one of her classmates knew the manual finger language. Another girl had learned to write Braille, copying as a present Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, but Helen never heard from her after graduation. The other students tried to be friendly whenever they saw her at a local lunchroom, and according to Helen, “Miss Sullivan spelled their bright chatter into my hand.” But she was painfully aware of the gulf between them, even though her classmates tried to bridge the gap by such lavish, awkward gestures as buying her a Boston terrier, which she promptly named Phiz. Presumably the dog would compensate her for what they were either too timid or too busy to give and what she secretly longed for: “the warm, living touch of a friendly hand.”

And here’s another revealing passage:

“Of Helen’s professors, only one, William Allan Neilson, who later became the president of Smith College, took the time to master the manual finger language so he could communicate directly with her. As Arthur Gilman was closely associated with the college, she and Annie were politely ignored by the rest of the faculty and administration, including the autocratic Agnes Irwin, the dean of Radcliffe, and the august Dr. Charles W. Eliot, the head of Harvard.

The snub did not surprise Annie, who was still furious about the plot at the Cambridge School to separate her from Helen. “I would much prefer to have people despise me as they certainly would if they guessed how full of distrust and contempt my heart is towards my fellow beings,” she wrote to Hitz. “I know it pains you to hear me speak in this way and doubtless it will hurt you still more to have me write it: but I want you to know just how detestable I am. I find people hateful and I hate them. Mr. Gilman seemed to me a fair specimen of our noble race. . . .”

“Radcliffe did not desire Helen Keller as a student,” Dean Irwin later explained to an interviewer. “It was necessary that all instruction should reach her through Miss Sullivan, and this necessity presented difficulties. They were overcome and all went well if not easily.”

Helen was wounded whenever her classmates passed her on the stairs and in the lecture halls without a sign of acknowledgment. Most of her teachers were “impersonal as Victrolas,” she recollected years later, and “the professor is as remote as if he were talking through a telephone.”


I have a recurring sense that the realities of campus life for people with disabilities may not have changed much when it comes to what we nowadays call “inclusiveness” in higher education. We have laws of course, and assistive technologies, and surely we do better at providing reading materials in alternative formats. Yet for all that I think that at far too many colleges and universities in these United States one will find that where disability is concerned the faculty and administrators are still “impersonal as Victrolas”. One need only visit the web site LD Online for an overview of the struggles that students with learning disabilities have faced and continue to face as they struggle to gain accommodations in the classroom. Or one can visit the U.S. Department of Justice page and see findings against American colleges and universities. See in particular Duke University but also Chatham University or University of Michigan or Swarthmore College or Colorado College or Millikin University or University of Chicago–each of these cases of discrimination against students or staff with disabilities is fairly representative of the landscape in post-secondary education–what we might call the “Autocracy of the Victrola” if you will. And if you believe (as I surely do) that these problems start earlier, you can visit the DOJ’s web pages on school district discrimination settlements.

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)
A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation’s institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they “do” they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

In the meantime there are autocratic talking machines aplenty. One senses their steady banishment to the attics of history. Those of us who labor in higher education should do all we can to grease the skids.


The noted scholar of disability studies Lennard Davis writes in his book Bending Over Backwards a trenchant overview of the academic relativism that consigns disability to Diversity’s basement and argues for the critical importance of disability studies in higher education:

“The fact is that disability disturbs people who think of themselves as nondisabled. While most liberals and progressives would charitably toss a moral coin in the direction of the lame, the blind, or the halt, few have thought about the oppression committed in the name of upholding the concept of being “normal.” Consequently, one of the major tasks of this new field is to determine why this “fact” of disturbance exists, is accepted, and is promulgated. Disability scholars want to examine the constructed nature of concepts like “normalcy” and to defamiliarize them. David Pfeiffer writes that “normal behavior is a statistical artifact which encourages people with power and resources to label people without power and resources as abnormal.”’° Rosemarie Garland Thomson coins the term “normate” to make us think twice about using the term normal: “The term normate usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings. Normate, then, is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them.”’

Normates thus enforce their supposed normality by upholding some impossible standard to which all bodies must adhere. To further demystify such terms, disability activists have called attention to the routine ways in which language is used to describe people with disabilities. Such activists refer to themselves as “crips,” as in the video documentary by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder called Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back, and choose words like gimp, geek, deaf and blind over more polite euphemisms. Expressions like “confined to a wheelchair” are being replaced by the more active “wheelchair user.” And expressions that use impairments metaphorically to convey a negative sense–such as “a lame idea,” “turn a deaf ear,” or “morally blind”–are being seen as the equivalent of racial epithets. This obsession with being normal has a history, as I attempt to show in my book Enforcing Normalcy)2 The use of the word normal in reference to physical bodies appeared in English merely one hundred fifty years ago, coinciding with the birth of statistics and eugenics. Before the nineteenth century in Western culture the concept of the “ideal” was the regnant paradigm in relation to bodies, and so all bodies were less than ideal. The introduction of the concept of normality, however, created an imperative to be normal, as the eugenics movement proved by enshrining the bell curve (also known as the “normal curve”) as the umbrella under whose demanding peak we should all stand. With the introduction of the bell curve came the notion of “abnormal” bodies. And the rest is history, including the Nazis’ willing adoption of the state-of-the-art eugenics funded and developed by British and American scientists, as Martin Pernick points out in The Black Stork.13 The devastating result was the creation of procedures for exterminating deaf and disabled people, procedures which were later used on the Jews, gypsies, and other “degenerate” races. But the Nazis were only the most visible (and reviled) tip of an iceberg that continues quite effectively to drive humans into daily frenzies of consuming, reading, viewing, exercising, testing, dieting, and so on–all in pursuit of the ultimate goal of being considered normal.

Disability studies demands a shift from the ideology of normalcy, from the rule and hegemony of normates, to a vision of the body as changeable, unperfectable, unruly, and untidy. Philosopher Susan Wendell sounds a clarion call that in the end provides a rationale for the disability perspective: “Not only do physically disabled people have experiences which are not available to the able-bodied, they are in a better position to transcend cultural mythologies about the body, because they cannot do things the able-bodied feel they must do in order to be happy, ‘normal’ and sane …. If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.”4″
–from Bending Over Backwards by Lennard J. Davis, New York University Press, p. 24

We can argue that “the body normal” is still culturally of considerable importance in administrative circles within American higher education. That disability clouds the picture is entirely understandable. Disfigurement is a terribly problematic matter if the goal on campus is simply to look good (whatever your social background).
Academic accommodations for learning disabilities, special provisions for assistive technologies or note taking or the like are still, to this very day, unconsciously imagined by many administrators and faculty as being somehow a matter of cheating the system.

That accessible facilities are not part of the cultural capital of Normates should not be surprising given the historical exclusivity of higher education. But that the problem of ADA compliance remains IS surprising especially in a time when we are seeing wounded veterans returning to colleges and universities in the greatest numbers since the years following World War II. Clearly its time for the Department of Justice to demand compliance with the ADA in higher education. And its time for regents, trustees, college presidents, and faculty senates to demand that their campuses be audited for accessibility and adopt serious plans for reaching accessibility goals.
The final question and perhaps the most important one is to ask how a college or university can be culturally inclusive for people with disabilities, a matter that if answered properly will take away the embarrassment and distress of having to ask for simple acceptance within the academic community.