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Expelled By Disability

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Expelled by Disability: Accessibility and Exclusion in Academia

Bridget Murray

From their structural shortcomings to their perfectionist standards, universities are inaccessible to many. This critique stems from my own experiences; dealing with post-concussion syndrome for the second half of this semester has opened my eyes to and piqued my interest in the seemingly endless (or maybe actually endless) ways that academia marginalizes, causes pain for, and condemns those with disabilities. I will be focusing on three major ways that academia acts as a disabling institution: the university’s structure, its pace, and the attitudes and standards it holds and perpetuates. This paper will address only physical disabilities; there is much beyond the narrow scope I will examine both in the realm of experiences of those with different types of disabilities and in the ways these experiences shift when considering the role of intersectional identities. I will be centering the paper around two narratives of disability: my own experiences and the experiences discussed by Concha Delgado-Gaitan, a senior professor at the University of California whose physical illness set on well into her academic career in the early 1990s and who relays her challenges, anecdotes, and lessons in her essay “Disabling Institutions.”  


The design of university classes, schedules, academic structures, and campuses inherently produces many avenues in which members of the college community may be disabled. Standards for classroom involvement leave little space for accommodation. Delgado-Gaitan’s efforts to make accommodations came to little avail: “[Students] were impatient that I could not move the class at the faster pace they expected. They were right that my voice dragged, I had to pause frequently, and I sat in front of the class since I could not walk back and forth as I had before” (64). I have faced similar problems; post-concussion syndrome conditions of light sensitivity and susceptibility to headaches are augmented by classroom factors: for example, the bright lighting of many classrooms, the use of screens for the class (movies, video clips, slideshows), and listening to lectures.  Both of our experiences reflect a structural challenges in the nature of classes, including the ways that they are taught (lectures, accompanying materials), physical setups (a regular class schedule, traditional classrooms), and expectations (that both teachers and students are constantly and fully engaged). 

Kristin Lindgren addresses the need to go beyond ADA checklists to reconcile these challenges in her essay “The (S)paces of Academic Work: Disability, Access, and Higher Education:” “Access also involves a way of thinking about the world that challenges us to imagine how another body, another mind, experiences it” (7-8). Delgdao-Gaitan faced an added, complexifying layer in that her students’ complaints about her teaching, grading, and availability outside of class—all areas complicated by her disabilities—reflected on her competence as a teacher, damaging her reputation among students and fellow faculty alike. Such criticisms may be a result of poor qualifications, but they also can result from difficulties engaging in the traditional Western education model due to disabilities. Adapting the physical university setting extends beyond making accommodations for a minority as necessary: we must reevaluate the legacy of current pedagogical methods, the legacy of assuming that all students have the same bodies and minds. Such a reevaluation is undoubtedly difficult, as it involves not just challenging reliable methods that have always worked but also acknowledging that the only reason why these reliable methods have always worked is because they have excluded and erased the students they failed.  But difficult as it is, it is also essential to embrace the full diversity of students and include those with a variety of disabilities.


Tied in with the physical disabling structures of university are the temporal disabling structures of academia. Academia prizes productivity, a fast pace, and a full plate. Professors are expected to keep up both with teaching obligations and with research and publication requirements, while students are expected to conform to academic requirements and prescribed course loads. Classes themselves require stamina, both to make it through the class itself and through each week. As Lindgren points out, disability schedules are not so constant: irregular sleep schedules, fluctuating productivity levels, and medical or disability related interruptions can all prevent a person with a disability from engaging; meanwhile, the fast pace of college courses means that missing even a week of class or falling behind on a week’s worth of work can drastically affect performance over the rest of the semester.

Over the course of this semester, even the best time management and minute-by-minute schedules were not enough for me to keep up with the pace of my classes. I had to work slowly, take frequent breaks, sleep more, and limit my daily time spent reading and working on computers, as my work habits would dictate not only my present condition but also my long-term recovery processes. In the end, I withdrew from one of my four classes so as to have any chance at keeping up with the others. As a result, I am behind on my major work as well as the graduation requirement of 32 credits, or four per semester. To compensate, this situation necessitates that I take a fifth course (an unadvisable challenge for even the nondisabled student that also assumes that my condition will not last beyond this semester) or a summer course (which introduces class assumptions), or that I have preexisting credits from high school coursework. Fortunately for me, I fall into this third category—another measure of privilege, as I attended a high school that could afford to offer these classes and had the financial means to take the national exams needed to receive college credit. My experiences reveal that there is little space for deviation from the able-bodied and able-minded norm; the only accommodations available involve a situation that then assumes class privilege or that the disability in question is temporary and will last only a semester.

Addressing the ways that academia’s time frames disable students and faculty means addressing the same reality as that of addressing physical access: that the way academia functions is not accessible and never has been, and that a refusal to make temporal space is a refusal to include people with disabilities. But who exactly are “people with disabilities?” Disability is in many ways a social construct, especially in the context of the fast-paced and unforgiving academic world, as Susan Wendell observes, drawing from her own experiences in her book The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability: “When the pace of life in a society increases, there is a tendency for more people to become disabled… the physical (and mental) limitations of those who cannot meet the new pace become conspicuous and disabling, even though the same limitations were inconspicuous and irrelevant to full participation in the slower-paced society” (37). Furthermore, there is no constant set of “people with disabilities” because just as the effects of disability fluctuate, so does disability itself. Someone may be disabled from birth, but someone originally able-bodied may become disabled with age or a change in life. They might become disabled as a result of an illness, disease, or injury. And a disability can be long- or short-term; it may be prolonged, it may be cured, it may go away on its own, or it may continue to exist but eventually be managed through medication or ongoing treatments and therapies. Thus, academia’s overall inaccessibility constitutes a failure to understand the human body, to value diversities in body and mind, and to respect individuals with disabilities.


Academia and the university are disabling not just in their structures but in their expectations and attitudes. Cognitively, there is a seemingly inherent assumption of a traditional “intellect:” a capacity to think, process, critique, respond , and produce complex work. For Delgado-Gaitan, disability meant a weaker memory and longer time to process, which translated to her classroom: “Spontaneity was suspended as classes took the form of lectures which I had written out one word at a time. This was appalling since I had always scoffed at passive lecturing as inadequate pedagogy” (67). She recalls her fears of not knowing the answers to students’ questions, forgetting the names and dates and common sources once at her fingertips, struggling to comprehend readings even after several rereading, and feeling failed by even twenty-eight years’ experience in her field. Her cognitive, mental, and emotional changes are at odds not only with academia itself but with even Western society’s ideal of intelligence. Similarly, I have felt disengaged through difficulty listening attentively to important lectures, following the track of class conversations, gathering my thoughts together for essays, wrapping my mind around theoretical papers. And when addressing my limitations, especially in a college community that prizes intellectuality and critical thinking, it’s easier to joke that “I can’t think too hard” than to acknowledge the reality that I feel unintelligent, slow, and out of touch. And this leads into another concern: the toxicity of academia.

Academia has undeniably high standards and it operates under an assumption of the ability to keep up with these standards; as a result, falling short of these standards is seen as a failure. To start, disabilities that are already invisible are erased altogether in regular society but especially in academia because “a person with a disability (or illness) that is not readily apparent, who has a social position with some prestige and power, who earns a good income...violates every stereotype about people with disabilities (or illnesses)…” (Wendell 4). The intensity of academia seems to require able-bodied and able-mindedness, and those who lack one or both are seen as anomalies. As I have already discussed, this is clearly not the case; nonetheless, this mindset perpetuates the apathy towards accessibility concerns, which then allows for the persistent belief that in uniformity of mind and body, creating an endless cycle of ableism.

This cycle then results in pressure to be able-bodied, because there is no apparent way to be disabled and successful. Delgado-Gaitan ran into this very challenge when her disability first began to impact her work:

Stubbornly, I insisted on maintaining my full-time teaching load, advising students, conducting field research…I felt smug. I could defy the illness like I could other physical adversities in the past. It had not defeated me…I interpreted [encouragement to keep fighting] as meaning that if I stopped working hard, both at the university and on my healing, I’d be a failure. Fearing that I would never get up again, I maintained my frantic pace. My fear kept my drive alive. I resisted learning how and why I should possibly concern myself with the body. I harbored a fantasy that soon a miracle would materialize. (60)

Her words ring true for me as well, and undoubtedly for others who went from thriving in an academic setting to struggling to keep up. Days are spent waiting for the situation to fix itself, stuck in the belief that it must be temporary because the alternative is unimaginable failure. Disability becomes disempowering, distressing, and alienating, and each moment is riddled with fear and stress and breathless exhaustion from fighting to win an impossible race. A system that promotes this marginalization is one that fights human nature, erases diversity, and silences countless voices.


The university system and Western academic structures are inherently disempowering to individuals with a variety of disabilities. I have only scraped the surface of these flaws by focusing on physical disability and by looking at physical disability by itself, without even beginning to peel away the layers that are added by intersectionality—for example, the way that race shapes the experiences of people with disabilities, or the many, many ways that accessibility is directly impacted by class. Yet through all of this it is still readily apparent that academia is exclusive. But this was already apparent: academia excludes on the basis of (dis)ability but also on the basis of every other identity—gender, class, race, religion… Wendell presents an important case: “If schools, colleges, universities, and workplaces were designed or modified to be fully accessible, and if discriminatory practices were ended, the extra help that a person with a disability would need to meet her/his potential would not be very much greater than that needed by a non-disabled person” (50).  In acknowledging and addressing the lack of space for people with disabilities, the resulting structural changes will reform how we envision academia, the individual, and the relationship between the two, creating space for even greater inclusion.


Works Cited

Delgado-Gaitan, Concha. “Disabling Institutions.” The Politics of Survival in Academia: Narratives of Inequity, Resilience, and Success. Ed. Lila Jacobs, José Cintrón, and Cecil E. Canton. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 57-75. Print.

Lindgren, Kristin. “The (S)paces of Academic Work: Disability, Access, and Higher Education.” 2014.

Wendell, Susan. Introduction. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996. 1-10. Print.

Wendell, Susan. “The Social Construction of Disability.” The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996. 35-56. Print.