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?