Welcoming Folks with Disabilities versus Allowing Access to Folks with Disabilities

Last weekend, I had an experience that highlighted the difference between accommodating disability to comply with the law and designing for equity in accessibility. Now that we are both vaccinated, my husband and I belatedly celebrated our anniversary by spending a couple nights in a nice hotel and going out to eat in restaurants. Our experiences getting into those two restaurants couldn’t have been more different.

At one restaurant, I pushed his wheelchair up to the entrance and saw only a revolving door which was not wheelchair accessible. I also cannot imagine a person managing it with a cane, walker, or any other type of mobility assistance. I looked all around the entrance and didn’t see any kind of alternative entrance or sign. Finally, I left my husband in his wheelchair in front of the restaurant and went in to speak to a host. The host apologized and said someone would be out shortly to escort us to the accessible entrance. We waited a few minutes, and then the host came out and led us all the way around two sides of the very large building that the restaurant is part of to another entrance that requires a keycard, and then escorted us through the building to the restaurant. The trip around the building might have exhausted someone using a cane or hemi-walker, and with no way to get into the restaurant without assistance, someone alone would have had to knock on the window to get a host’s attention.

At the other end of the accessibility spectrum was our experience at a restaurant that at first seemed completely inaccessible. While we were able to get into the restaurant without a problem because of the wide double doors, from the host stand I could see that all the tables were down a half-flight of stairs from the entrance. We were amazed when the host showed us the open elevator lift just to the side of the stairs—not tucked away in a shadowy corner or down a long hallway, but right there, in view just like the stairs. We took that down to the level with the tables, where we were greeted by another staff member. We were further amazed when our server brought our food and asked my husband, “Is there anything I can do to make your meal more accessible to you?” (Shout out to Denver’s amazing Blue Agave Grill on the Sixteenth Street Mall!)

These two restaurant experiences illustrate the differences between designing to comply with the law and designing for access equity. Although the first restaurant did have a way for us to enter, it was complicated, time-consuming (for us and the employee who had to escort us), frustrating, and inconvenient. It was clear that my husband was not the guest they anticipated. Had we arrived during the dinner rush, I imagine the host would have had to decide whether they were going to seat able-bodied customers already in the restaurant or attend to getting the guy in the wheelchair outside into the restaurant and leaving the host stand unattended for ten minutes, potentially making the host feel resentful toward my husband for putting them in that position.

On the other hand, the second restaurant made us feel warmly welcomed. The placement of the elevator lift right next to the stairs meant that we didn’t have to travel further than any other customer to get to a table, and the fact that the lift was open meant that for once, we weren’t made to feel like using the accessibility option was something to hide or be embarrassed about. No staff member had to spend extra time to get us seated. When we stepped into the elevator lift, I said to my husband, “It’s like they were expecting us.” That kind of reception is rare for folks with disabilities.

I think it’s also important to note that at the second restaurant, folks who don’t need the elevator lift don’t lose anything by its presence. Ableism assumes that providing equitable access for disabled people means able-bodied folks lose something or that something unfair is happening, but the conveniently-placed elevator lift doesn’t deprive folks who can take the stairs of anything. I also want to point out the particularly cruel irony that at the first restaurant, only the people most likely to have limited mobility need to make the long trek around the building.

Academia (and most everything else) is designed like the first restaurant. My husband in his wheelchair can get into the buildings on campus, but it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. I, with my vision impairment, can get a $35 lamp for my office or a classroom with good lighting, but again, it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. A student can get extended time on tests or to work on assignments—if they have the proper documentation, and that documentation can be complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient, not to mention expensive, to get.

In architectural terms, the second restaurant is an example of Universal Design (UD). In teaching and learning, that type of integration of accessible elements is called Universal for Learning (UDL). When faculty implement UDL, the student with a disability that requires extended time on tests or to work on assignments wouldn’t need to get documentation of their disability and then explicitly ask for an accommodation; like the second restaurant, accessibility would be baked right into the assignments. Considering that one in four people has a disability, and that people with disabilities show up on campus as students, faculty, staff, and administrators, it would make sense for buildings to be designed according to UD and classes to be designed according to UDL.

The two different restaurant experiences also offer a great illustration of the social model of disability, which recognizes that disability is a fluid concept and that a person using a wheelchair, for example, may be able to get around just fine in a setting designed for them, but they become disabled when their setting is designed ONLY for folks who do not use wheelchairs. You can see the disabling function happening when you compare my husband’s entrances into the two restaurants: same person, same wheelchair, but at one restaurant, he had to put in significantly more time and effort to get in, whereas in the other restaurant, he sailed in and was seated quickly just like anyone else. He was the same person with the same capabilities in both scenarios—the restaurant designs account for the difference. My husband got around just as well as anyone else in the second restaurant but the first restaurant’s inaccessible entrance disabled him.

The social model of disability locates the problem in the setting that is designed to exclude people who are not able-bodied. Using the social model, we can see that if different design choices are made, a space can be made less disabling. The same concept can be applied to course design: if different design choices are made, a course can be less disabling. UDL is all about designing instruction to be less disabling.

Want to learn more about UDL?

  • CAST’s guidelines for UDL design (CAST stands for Center for Applied Special Technology, but they don’t actually ever use the full name anymore and are officially knows simply as CAST)
  • DO-IT’s explanation of Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), a closely related and somewhat overlapping concept (DO-IT is an acronym for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, an office at the University of Washington)
  • MSU Denver’s archive of weekly SIPs (Strong Instructional Practices)

Rethinking My Use of the Word Microaggression

I have used the term microaggression in the last few posts to describe behaviors that indirectly convey a person’s derogatory thoughts about disabled people, such as when I am asked by a colleague who noticed that my class was moved to a different room if I really need special lighting in my classrooms.

I was recently reminded that Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, does not use the term “microaggression.” He explains

I do not use “microaggression” anymore. I detest the post-racial platform that supported its sudden popularity. I detest its component parts—“micro” and “aggression.” A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term “abuse” because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide. What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse. And I call the zero-tolerance policies preventing and punishing these abusers what they are: antiracist. Only racists shy away from the R-word—racism is steeped in denial.

How to Be An Anti-Racist

I heard him talk today at “A Conversation with Professor Ibram X. Kendi on Being an Antiracist,” an event sponsored by MSU Denver’s Center for Multicultural Excellence and Inclusion, about this and he made the point that the concept of microaggression takes things in isolation, but the person they are directed at experiences them as cumulative. The impact of each microaggression is compounded by all the past microaggressions they have experienced.

I have been thinking about Kendi’s point about calling something what it is in relation to the access fatigue that Annika Konrad identifies and that I have talked about experiencing. When I am asked if I really need a classroom with different lighting, I don’t experience “a microaggression,” I experience

  • someone doubting my integrity
  • someone questioning whether I have fraudulently secured documentation of my disability
  • someone wondering if I am exploiting my disability to get special treatment
  • someone judging me as “causing trouble”
  • someone resenting me for making their job more difficult

I don’t experience some of these—I experience all of them at once. When the person doing these things is a colleague, which is often the case, I also experience being disrespected by a peer; even worse is when the person has authority over me, such as a department chair or dean. Although I understand the ableist assumptions underpinning the “microaggression” as being institutionalized and transcending the particular interaction, in the moment, it feels personal and I feel the weight of having to defend myself, my need for a classroom with different lighting, and the needs of all other disabled people on campus to be taken seriously.

Kendi’s elaboration in today’s conversation on his reasons for not using the term microaggression made me realize that I have used the term uncritically and that the people who benefit from that are the people who perpetrate the ableist abuse. I do find the term microaggression helpful because it is a convenient shorthand for a long list of problematic behaviors that are typically seen as so small that no one should be held accountable, but the term does not adequately convey the cumulative nature of the effect of each individual microaggression.

Moving forward, I am going to try to use terminology that more effectively articulates the effect of the behavior I am commenting on.  

Academic Ableism: The Expectation that Crips Be More Thankful

A few nights ago, I watched the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. The 2020 film follows some disabled teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a camp for disabled kids, together in the ‘70s as they grow up and become disabilities rights activists. Near the end of the film, disability rights activist Judy Heumann, who lost the use of her legs from polio when she was a toddler,  says, “I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. If I have to be thankful for an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”

That quotation captures the ableist assumption that disabled folks should be more thankful than nondisabled folks for exactly the same level of access. That is not equity. That is an ableist assumption that access for able-bodied folks is normal and should be expected and even taken for granted, while access for disabled folks is above-and-beyond and disabled folks should grovel in thanks on a regular basis. It ignores the fact that equal access is mandated by the law, but even more importantly, it obscures the truth that disabled folks are humans with the same rights, desires, hopes, and dreams as nondisabled folks.

I talked last week about my own access fatigue and how it contributes to my decision to sometimes not ask for accommodations. Another factor that contributes to my access fatigue is the expectation that I should be thankful for any accommodations I get. I am thankful—for the efforts of people like Heumann and other disability rights activists who fought to get people like me the same kind of access non-disabled folks take for granted. Do I need to also be more thankful for signs I can read than anyone else is for readable signs? Do I need to also be more thankful for presentation slides that use a high contrast color scheme than anyone else in the room is for being able to make out the words on the slides? Do I need to also be more thankful for well-marked curbs and steps than anyone else is for being able to travel around the campus without fear of tripping?

Judging by the attitudes of many people in academia, the answer to these questions is yes. Every semester, I hear faculty colleagues say things like, “I provided the accommodation to the student and didn’t even get a thank you.” These same colleagues don’t expect their able-bodied students to be thankful for desks or exams or films they can access, but they do expect their disabled students to be thankful for desks that they can navigate to in a wheelchair, exams with extended time allowed, and films with closed-captions. These faculty see students’ disabilities as a burden on them, the professors, that must be acknowledged and atoned for by the students. For accommodations that must be given repeatedly, like extended time on exams, those faculty expect to be thanked every time an exam is given. It wears a person down, this regularly expected participation in maintaining an ableist commonplace.

The fact is, most of the time my own students do thank me for providing accommodations, and I suspect this is because they’ve learned that if they don’t, accommodations will be harder to come by in the future. When students do thank me, I tell them that providing accommodations is literally the bare minimum a professor can do to comply with the law and I apologize to them that they feel the need to thank anyone for that. (In the article I mentioned last week, “Access Fatigue: The Rhetorical Work of Disability in Everyday Life,” Annika Konrad identifies as one of the themes in her data the emotional labor of having to regularly show appreciation for access.)

Access Fatigue: Why I Don’t Consistently Ask for Accommodations

I am deeply grateful to Annika Konrad for naming the exhaustion I feel whenever I have to explain to someone what I need in order to access a space or content or an activity: access fatigue. In her brilliant College English article, “Access Fatigue: The Rhetorical Work of Disability in Everyday Life,” she uses the term to describe the work disabled people must constantly do to educate others about their disabilities and needs, to enable others to feel helpful even when they are doing the very barest minimum to make something accessible and/or doing it very grouchily, and to balance the costs of asking for access with the benefits of actually getting it.

Here are just a few stories to illustrate why I feel access fatigue on my campus:

  • Even though I have filed all the proper paperwork with HR to be in an office with natural light, I had to fight for three years to get an office with natural light, and then, I was told that I was “stealing” that office from someone else.
  • In the years before I got the office with natural light, HR told me I could ask my department to buy me better lighting for my office. When I made that request, I was asked did I really need the special lighting, wasn’t it something I could purchase myself, and did I realize that it wasn’t HR paying for it but the department itself and the department budget was very tight? All this over a $35 lamp. Then I still had to fight for six months for the lamp to be ordered, and when it finally arrived, the person who brought it to my office slammed it down on my desk and said, “Here’s your special lamp.”
  • Despite that HR paperwork that is supposed to guarantee that I teach in well-lit classrooms, every semester, I have to fight to make it happen. Every semester and for every class. And because my disability isn’t apparent, nearly every semester I am asked whether I really need to have my classes moved. (Like I would go through this exhausting process if I didn’t have to?!)

Notice the theme? I had to fight for each accommodation, either for prolonged periods or over and over. Not once did the person hearing my request respond with, “Oh, I’d be happy to help.” Every one of them let me know in sometimes explicit ways and other times through microaggressions, that my request was a pain in their ass. These are the experiences of a white, tenured faculty member, so I can only imagine how much more exhausting it is for students who ask for accommodations from faculty, given the power imbalances.

My own experience of living with impaired vision is full of damned-if-I-do-and-damned-if-I-don’t moments. If I do mention it, because my disability is not apparent to most people, it can appear that I am “just looking for attention” or being “high maintenance.” I’ve been accused of “not trying hard enough to see,” of being “lazy,” of “just trying to make a point.” On the other hand, if I don’t mention it, I can find myself in awkward or even dangerous situations, like the time I ended up locked in a stairwell because the sign saying that the door would automatically lock behind me and there was no cell access in the stairwell was yellow text on a white background, or the many, many times I’ve been in meetings where I can’t read the presenter’s slides because there isn’t enough contrast.

Many conference venues, hotels, and office buildings indicate room numbers in some artistic way, such as engraving the number into a piece of metal or wood or using earth tones for both the number and the background. I appreciate that they are lovely, but the numbers are invisible to me. Many times, I’ve stood in front of a room and asked someone entering it what the room number is. I often get a very unhelpful response. People have said to me, “The number is right there,” pointing to the number but never actually telling me what it is. Or people will suggest in unkind ways that I haven’t tried looking: “Look around,” “try looking,” or “read the sign.” Then there are the people who pretend they didn’t hear me.

All of the responses I’ve noted, from being told I was “stealing” an office from someone else to the sarcastic replies to my question about a room number, reveal the ableist assumption that I am making unreasonable demands when I ask for accommodations. The responses are underpinned by a belief that there is nothing wrong with the poorly lit office or the low-contrast sign—that the problem is with me and I should just suck it up.

Sometimes people do respond kindly and wonderfully. After I fell down a flight of concrete steps on my campus because I didn’t see them and their edges weren’t marked in any way, I called our campus facilities office to ask them to mark the steps. The woman who answered the phone spent the first few minutes of our call making sure I wasn’t hurt badly and apologizing that the steps weren’t better marked. I’ve had complete strangers let me hold on to them while I walked down a street or sidewalk that wasn’t well lit at night. I have wonderful friends and family who point out steps, uneven pavement, and other low-contrast obstacles when we walk or hike together. My students are often much more conscientious than my colleagues, asking me before they do presentations if their slides have enough contrast or offering to reprint a paper that was printed at the end of an ink cartridge’s life.

Despite the generous responses I do sometimes get to my requests for accommodations, when I am feeling the least bit depleted, I often decide not to ask for what I need. Konrad notes in her article that “people with disabilities are often encouraged to advocate for their own access without consideration for the mental and emotional labor required to do so” (180). The toll of that mental and emotional labor adds up and my desire to avoid it often causes me to forgo an experience.

Many conference registration forms now ask if registrants will need accommodations. While I appreciate being asked, most of the time I don’t ask for any these days because what I really need—well-marked room numbers and bathrooms, for example, and presentation slides that are high contrast and with a large font—can’t be controlled by the conference organizers. When I have asked for slides to be high contrast and with a large font, as far as I can tell, my request was ignored. (Many presenters mumble something at the beginning of their presentations along the lines of, “I hope everyone can see this ok,” which is absolutely unhelpful—although not as unhelpful as saying, “I don’t need a microphone, I’ll just use my teacher voice.”) And that’s perhaps the most exhausting aspect of asking for accommodations: even more frustrating than having someone argue that I don’t really need the accommodation I’ve asked for or the suggestion that I’m not really trying to see is the ignoring of a request that was invited. While the initial invitation to ask for accommodations may come from a place of generosity, the ignoring of the request amounts to gaslighting. I find myself wondering when a request is ignored, Did I imagine making the request? Am I invisible? Am I wanted here?