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Accessibility and Higher Education

zoet's picture

This is a mental "rough draft," as I begin to formulate my own ideas about inclusion, accessibility, and higher education. I would love to hear your thoughts!    

In "Academic Ableism," Dolmage begins his work by describing a set of university stairs, a symbol of his larger argument: ableism is reinforced and upheld through space and architecture in higher education. While his argument is a cogent and important one, it underestimates the extent to which academia is steeped in ableism. His focus on physical space and physical disability undermines how people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities are systematically excluded from higher education. While it is true that stairs and physical spaces make universities unaccessible, much of this could be fixed with a reform level change. Adding an elevator or ramp to a college does not force us to reconsider the purpose of higher education. However, if we truly wanted academia to be accessible to everyone, the higher education system would have to undergo radical changes. Almost every aspect of academia would have to be reconsidered, from admissions policies to professors' syllabi. But why not? Why shouldn't we want to shift the university from a place where people compete to get into and then compete once they're there, to a place where everyone can learn and be challenged to fulfill their potential? 

One argument against a more accessible admissions policy to highly competitive schools is that students must demonstrate a certain level of academic achievement if they are going to succeed in the university. However, universities contradict themselves in this, happily admitting students (with scholarship!) with lower grades if they demonstrate exceptional musical, artistic, or athletic ability. In doing this, we see that universities are committed not to admitting the most intelligent* students, but ones that will be the most profitable (think about the amount of money sports games bring in). Here, we see evidence of "interest convergence,"** reminding us that the strings of capitalism and higher education are intertwined. But, as we are learning from progressive art studios, artists with cognitive disabilities are just as talented and capable of making profitable work as nondisabled artists. So why aren't we reconsidering the types of students that can attend our colleges and universities? 

What does higher education look like without "academic ableism?" What are reform-level changes we can take towards this ideal?  

*This word is super, I'm using in the way that intelligence is too often socially constructed to mean high grades / high test scores, even though this is not how I think about intelligence. 

**Derrick Bell's term for how white people will only work towards minority rights when they see it in white people's interests...I think it can be applied to the context of ability and disability.  


gcat's picture

Spot on, as per usual. I want to expand your argument about the capitalist interests of higher education to include the significance of alumnae donors. Private colleges depend on this income heavily, which means that alumnae must make a profitable enough salary to be able to donate to the college. Similarly, the prestige of accomplished alumnae acts as a way for the college to advertise. 

Conversely, however, I have heard of programs in colleges where a person with intellectual disabilities can work and take specified classes. I don't exactly feel that this fully encapsulates the radical change you suggest, however. I believe the college can only provide potential to everyone if it erases the internal segregation within its system. Physical barriers often do segregate people with physical disabilities from others in that they can not always keep up with a group or can not access the same resources. But people with physical disabilities can still academically experience many similar experiences that those with intellectual disabilities cannot. Many people across the board receive accommodations, so why cannot we find a way to accommodate people with intellectual disabilities without segregating them into a completely "special" environment.