Disability and Ableism in Academia: Whose Problem is Access?

I want to tell a few stories about getting to the writing center I direct to illustrate some of the ways ableism is baked into academia.

The main location of the writing center is on the fourth floor of a building on campus. There are two ways to get to the fourth floor:

  • You can take the elevator located on the south side of the building directly up to the fourth floor. This is easy enough if you enter the building from the south side’s main entrance. However, if you enter the building from the north side’s main entrance, you will find no indicators that you need to go all the way through the building to the south side to find the elevator.
  • You can take the stairs, but you’ll likely be confused when the large, prominent staircase on the south side of the building ends on the third floor. Once on the third floor, you’ll need to wander around to find the place, behind doors, where the stairs continue to the fourth floor. Again, you’ll find no indicators to help you. If you have any kind of impaired mobility, you will likely find this experience incredibly frustrating.

If you make it to the fourth floor, you’ll find that you have to get down a hallway that is technically wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker; however, it is lined with large chairs, shrinking its width by a third and adding a jumble of visual clutter. These chairs are often not lined up neatly against the walls, so their corners may be jutting out awkwardly. Or, in some stretches of the hallway, you may find chairs on one side of the hallway and a few feet later, chairs on the other side of the hallway, meaning you can’t just move in a straight line down the hallway but rather need to navigate like a pinball through the gauntlet—easy enough for some, but very complicated for folks who use assistive devices.

As a vision-impaired person, I find the visual clutter of the chairs to be anxiety-producing, but it doesn’t keep me from getting to the writing center. However, employees and clients with mobility challenges have regularly had trouble getting down the hallway. The hallway belongs to the English department, so three years ago, I told the department’s chairperson that the Writing Center would be happy to purchase slim benches to replace the chairs in the hallway, improving accessibility for everyone.

While the department chairperson was very sympathetic about the access issues presented by the chairs, the benches were never ordered. Even with the money being provided by someone else, the department chair said replacing the chairs with benches simply wasn’t a priority. The department manager was actively resistant to replacing the chairs, telling me, “There’s nothing wrong with these chairs.” When I told her the chairs were a problem, she said, “Well, how many people are really affected? Can’t they go to one of your satellites?”  

These stories illustrate some typically ableist ways that academia engages with accessibility:

  • The challenges of finding the elevator or figuring out where the stairs from the third floor to the fourth floor of the building are seen as the problem of the individual with mobility issues. Although I have complained to the facilities department multiple times, no signs have been added. It’s every individual for themselves. I’ve seen this situation replicated on every college campus I’ve ever been on. Buildings may have ramps, but where they are located is often a well-kept secret; how ironic that the least mobile among us must often circle a building multiple times to find the accessible entrance. A simple sign pointing to the ramp would be lovely. Having a ramp instead of stairs would solve the problem completely (for more on stairs leading to academic building entrances, see Jay Dolmage’s discussion in Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.) These building access issues exist because buildings are designed with only able-bodied people as users in mind, and the lack of signage about accessible features sends the message that people who aren’t able-bodied can enter the building only if they’re willing to make the extra effort to find the accessible entrance.
  • Making spaces accessible is seen as important but not a priority. “Important” here is akin to the “thoughts and prayers” offered by gun rights advocates in the wake of mass shootings—just words. The irony of the department chairperson who does not see making the hallway more accessible as a priority at a university that advertises itself as accessible is interesting. I believe “accessible” here is just a fancy way to say “affordable” and not to be taken to include actual physical accessibility. Even in advertising itself as accessible, the institution imagines only an able-bodied student.
  • The department manager who didn’t understand why perfectly good chairs should be replaced was prioritizing furniture over people. She located the problem in the people who couldn’t navigate the hallway rather than in the hallway crowded with chairs. Rather than getting rid of the chairs, she wanted to get rid of the people, sending them to a satellite. (Considering the difficulties I outlined of simply getting to the fourth floor of the building, I am particularly outraged that someone would suggest that a client who made it that far only to be stymied getting down the hallway should be sent to another building.) The department manager’s assumption is that people who aren’t able-bodied are less important than chairs. Let that sink in: people who aren’t able-bodied are less important than chairs.

To summarize: Access is consistently seen as the problem of the disabled person. Accessibility is “important” but not a priority. Disabled people (and their time and effort) are not important.

In a future entry, I will suggest some actions the average academic can take to push back against this ableism.  

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