Last month, I received a thank you note from an Autistic alumna for my writing on disability. “If I had had people like you around when I was at GU maybe my experie-nces wouldn’t have been so bad,” she wrote. Some might wonder whether her experiences were isolated incidents, but interviews with several disabled mem-bers of the Georgetown community suggest that neither her nor my experiences have occurred independently of an environment that encourages and permits ableism.
Unfortunately, most people have never even heard of ableism, never mind attempted to challenge it. Ableism is bigotry and prejudice against disabled people on the basis of actual or perceived disability, and like all other forms of oppression, is both systemic and individual. Yet just as racism can appear in a textbook, an offhand remark, a judicial system, or a white hood, ableism takes both overt and subtle forms. Cases like that of Paul Corby, who was denied placement on a list for heart transplants solely because he is Autistic and for no actual medical reason, provide egregious examples of ableism’s conse-quences, but much ableism is far less obvious. Ableism is one form of oppression, which is systematic disen-franchisement due to actual or presumed membership in a particular group (in this case, disabled people) as a result of the power exercised by the analogously privileged group (or able-bodied and neuro-typical people).
Izzi Angel, a student with bipolar disorder, said that she witnesses ableism from other students “all the time through language choices such as ‘crazy,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘derpy’ [or] ‘lame.’” Most understand slurs against people of color, queers, women or members of religious minorities. Yet surprisingly few realize that their everyday voca-bulary is replete with language that has historically been used as weapons against the disabled and that their continued use of such language only further contributes to marginalization.
“I find it fascinating that people consider themselves liberal and urbane and good on issues of gender and sexual orientation and all of these kind of social issues,” says Evan Monod, a student with cerebral palsy. “The fact that they would be able to drop that word [retard] so casually betrays a real lack of knowledge and a real lack of empathy.”
Keegan Lehrer* found himself directly ostracized by his fellow students. Lehrer is Blind and Autistic. He used to be a Georgetown student, but transferred out after suffering from pervasive ableism from faculty, staff, and students. Lehrer remembers that the only student who ever spoke to him “felt completely comfortable asking me endless questions about blindness, including if I have sex (soon after meeting me, long before it would generally be considered an appropriate question).” Lehrer also remembers the same student telling him that everyone else sat as far away as possible from him during class.
Yet ableism is not merely relegated to students, nor to the language used to construct disability. “This semester alone I have been assigned so much problematic material,” Angel said. “Textbooks are often outdated and almost hilariously offensive.”
Take Alex Guttmacher*, a neurologically disabled student. He’s taking Fathali Moghaddam’s General Psychology class. Guttmacher’s textbook explains autism as “another condition characterized by impaired social contact,” claiming that Autistics “pay little attention to other people.” (The Autistic community, which has developed its own cultural and social norms, would argue that Autistic socializing is neither impaired nor deficient, but different or alternative.)
Lehrer remembered ableism during classes. “In one course, I had to listen to a well-respected professor make extremely ableist comments,” he said. “She lectured for several classes on what it’s like to be blind. In spite of the fact that she was aware of having me as a student, it never occurred to her to ask me for my perspective. Rather, she felt sufficiently informed on the topic as a sighted person, which was made quite obvious by the fact that she regularly ignored my raised hand. For the record, this professor’s ideas about blindness were grossly inaccurate. Had this professor at least been somewhat accurate, I would have been much less bothered by the experience, but the combination of misinformation and unwillingness to include me in a discussion about my disability made the whole experience all the more suffocating.”
You’d think, however, that even if some professors are ableist, disabled students would find support from the Academic Resource Center or the deans. “I had one of the counselors at the ARC tell me that Georgetown isn’t legally required to provide me with Braille because ‘school is a choice,’” Lehrer said. “Saying this is not only incredibly ableist, but also completely illegal. By law, any school is required to provide all students with disabilities reasonable accommodations.”
Lack of consideration for different styles of movement, thought, and communication pervade all facets of life at Georgetown. Is it any wonder that disabled students, particularly those with invisible or non-apparent disabilities, are closeted as disabled and uncomfortable with coming out? (Even several of my interviewees insisted that I not identify them.)
I asked my interviewees if they were ever surprised to encounter ableism in supposedly safe spaces. “At this point I don’t really expect anyone not to be ableist. It’s hard not to be cynical to the point of [being] somewhat misanthr-opic,” says Angel. Another student with mental health disabilities underscored Angel’s sentiment when he recalled an administrator from one of the diversity centers saying, “I don’t want any crazy people in here.”
Another interviewee mentioned a recent staff training about ableism, but the vast majority of professional and student employees are not provided with any diversity training specific to or inclusive of ableism. Unfortunately, a good amount of programming, coursework, and discussions around disability do little more than perpetuate already existing ableist ideas or philosophies despite the best of intentions.
“We aren’t openly challenging this [ableism],” says Kristin Ronzi, another disabled student. “Our society has talked about racism. We’ve talked about sexism. And there’s still a long way to go, but we’ve begun to have that discussion and we’ve begun to see what the problems are. I don’t think that we’ve begun to have these discussions about ableism.”
Ableism cannot be understood as an individual aberration, but must be examined as part of a hierarchy of inter- secting oppressions and privileges. Most who understand sociological privilege—unearned advantages or benefits derived from membership in a certain group—readily recognize that most Georgetown students expe-rience many privileges in addition to able-bodied and neurotypical privilege. Compounding the effects of ableism, members of privileged groups can remain unaware both of their privilege and of the analogous oppression that those outside their group experience. As a result of such passive complacency, which is facilitated by societal norms that reinforce and center their experiences as normative, mem- bers of privileged groups are frequently unprepared and unwilling to examine their privilege, much less call it out in others.
In order to foster a culture of inclusion that celebrates disability as diversity and challenges the hostility keeping many disabled people closeted, classes must incorporate a critical disabilities studies perspective; discussions about diversity must meaningfully address disability identity; our administration must implement and enforce university-wide anti-ableism policies; and our discussions about disability must reject an exclusively medicalized model of disability. It is imperative that initiatives promoting a disability studies and civil rights perspective be recognized by the university and given the resources necessary to foster an environment where disability is understood as a natural and normal part of human diversity.
* Not real name.
For more information and to see the full interviews, go to thegeorgetownindependent.tumblr.com
Brown is a Psychology and Arabic Sophomore
Photo Credit: Lydia Brown