Friday, October 14, 2016

Swimming Against The Stream: On Being Disabled in Higher Education

Throughout my educational career, I have encountered many people who seem surprised to see me, a young disabled person, succeeding in school. I’m thinking of my ninth grade math tutor who came to teach me when I was recovering from surgery, the one who said it didn't matter if I only learned 70% of the material because “it's not like you’re going to go to Princeton or anything.” I'm thinking of the proctor at my Advanced Placement exam who explained his confusion with testing accommodations by saying that "people like you don't usually take these tests." I'm thinking of a woman I didn't even know in the local grocery store who shouted to her husband, "This is one of the girls who went to college!” and how I knew, that being from a town where most girls went to college, she really meant “this is one of the disabled girls that went to college!” I'm thinking of countless others, now blended together in my mind, who have marveled "College? Wow!” in the baby voice, the one that sounds surprised I’ve done anything at all.

It hurts when others don't see the words “disabled” and “accomplished” or “disabled” and “educated” as compatible. It hurts especially when I think of all the bright, witty, incredible thinkers with disabilities who have their academic promise overlooked because of assumptions about the bodies and minds with which they live. This is not to imply that the only way to be “smart” or “promising” is to be traditionally educated or traditionally book smart. Disabled folks are gifted in all kinds of ways. Yet those gifts are frequently unseen, unappreciated, or undiscovered, because we live in a society that still does not expect us to have value. When the world tells disabled kids again and again that their success will be an exception not an expectation, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when many of those kids start to believe the lie.

To this day, now in my first year of graduate school, I contend with low expectations for people with disabilities. Just this week, a professor seemed overly impressed when I scored well on a test. Still, it seems, too many people don’t see “disability” and “success” as concepts that go together. And they are surprised that I’ve made it this far. In a way, it is amazing that I’m here. Amazing that before long, I will have a master’s degree. But not for the reasons you think. My ability to do well in school should be viewed as unremarkable, because a disabled person can be just as academically successful as anyone else. The world I want to live in expects us to succeed. Yet it is amazing that I am here when I think of all the barriers society has created for us. And when people act amazed that I have come this far, I don’t want it to be because they’re shocked that a disabled person can reach her goals. Instead, I want them to be shocked that we live in a country that still makes getting a basic education a battle for us.

It’s true that just 14% of people with disabilities[1] have a bachelor’s degree in this country. But don’t think for a minute it’s because they’re not smart, not capable, or not willing. Think about the fact that ableism runs so deep in our nation that being able to get in the door of my school feels like an enormous privilege. Think of what it feels like to fight for every minute of learning you’ve ever gotten. Think about trying to do your best in a system that doesn’t even give you a right to find out what doing your best means, because all you’re technically entitled to is “adequate yearly progress.” Then, maybe you will begin to understand that the scarcity of disabled people in higher education is not for lack of talent, or ability, or strength, but rather for lack of opportunity in an ableist world.

Given the chance to address every person who is amazed that I am here, I would tell each of them that I am too. Not because I am not qualified, but because the world tries pretty damn hard to put the opportunities non-disabled people take for granted out of reach.
The thought of finding the ramp to get into the ivory tower can be pretty exhausting when getting into a public bathroom is a treat. I would tell them I have had moments when I wanted to give up on my education, not because I doubted my intelligence, but because I was tired. Tired of fighting for a desk I could use. Tired of wondering if the bus would show up, and tired of knowing that if it didn’t, my complaint letter would probably disappear into a vortex of bus depot apathy. I’d tell them I have a list of things I could have, should have, might have fought harder for, if I hadn’t been so so tired. That swimming against the stream every day takes enormous energy, and that sometimes, if only for a moment, I needed to let myself float.

I’d tell them that if I didn’t have a mother who brought me to school when the bus didn’t come, came to school to help me pee when the umpteenth aide bailed on me, and displayed unending patience in the face of my horrific spatial skills, I may not have had the chance to finish high school, not for lack of ability, but lack of access. I’d tell them that in junior high, a string of incompetent aides made me afraid to go to the bathroom in school, and that I prayed with every fiber in my little 12-year-old being to stay dehydrated. How that string of incompetent and often cruel aides convinced me that it would be better if I denied myself water until my body was no longer thirsty. I’d tell them how in tenth grade, the gentleness of the right caregiver taught me slowly that I deserved to feel thirsty again, and to stop apologizing for my basic bodily functions. But relearning how to be kind to my body took time, and the tiny children’s water bottle I keep in my wheelchair still feels like a radical act. I’d tell them that I still think through every ounce I drink, because I can’t leave class to go to the bathroom and be back in two minutes. I’d tell them that by the time they see me sitting in class, I am all assembled, but behind the scenes, it really does take a village to brush my hair, dress me, bathe me, and do all the little things it takes to live a life. I often joke that simply getting ready in the morning is the group project that never ends.

I don’t want people to be “inspired” that I am doing the same things others are expected to do. I want them to realize the injustice in the fact that for me, basic inclusion still feels like a privilege. I want them to know that although I am tired from fighting so many battles, I am one of the lucky ones, afforded opportunities that too many of my disabled peers have been denied. I want them to know that for us, simply existing with bodies and minds that the world deems inconvenient is a rebellion. So yes, it’s amazing that I am here. But not for the reasons you think.

[1] Yang, K. and Tan, H.E. (2014). Disability statistics. Retrieved from Cornell University Institute on Employment and Disability.

                                                   (Image is a back shot of me rolling down the street in my cap and gown on the morning of my undergraduate graduation)