A graduation ceremony. Photographed from a distance, Amy, photographed from behind, has walked up steps and across a stage. In the background on auditorium style seating, a group of academics in robes. Amy's blonde hair is visible, she wears a black academic gown with green hood.

Academic Ableism

In an article titled, Extremist and Disability Chic, academics Kauffman & Badar state: “we do not want disability to be seen as merely another form of good or acceptable diversity”. They argue that disability is inherently ‘bad’, a curse rather than a gift, something to be prevented, cured, segregated and institutionalised.

According to Kauffman & Badar, because I think that my disability is ‘good’, and as it isn’t something I actively seek to ‘cure’, I’m an extremist. Apparently, by celebrating my disability, and claiming that having a disability isn’t a bad thing, I’m advocating a dangerous ‘chic’ fad reminiscent of historic genocide or systematic violent oppression.

Now, unlike Kauffman and Bader, I wouldn’t dictate to anyone how to feel about their disability. I have openly discussed my own problematic process of embracing my visual impairment. I was so deeply in denial that I had sight loss that I completely rejected the word disabled. I refused to identify with a group I perceived as defined by weakness and inability. In short, I’d internalised the very ableism forwarded by Kauffman and Badar that is so pervasive in academic culture.

A younger Amy, she loos down with a sad smile, her light blonde hair waving over her face, obscuring some of it. She wears smaller black glasses and a scholars mortar board.

During nearly a decade at three different red bricks, the exhausting battle to have my access needs met meant that I gave up on asking for support. Of course, there were a few supportive tutors along the way. I ended up pursuing the history of British colonialism not only because the subject interested me, but because I knew I would actually be able to study it. However, overwhelmingly, I got the same message repeated over and again. My needs were inconvenient, my reasonable adjustments were a burden, my disability was unwanted, shameful and problematic. Needing access to a large print photocopy, the lecture notes and powerpoint slides in advance made me unworthy of participation in higher education.

I developed an ultimately harmful series of coping mechanisms to manage the toxic over working culture of PhD life. Without access to the right equipment, long hours staring at Victorian manuscripts left me in agony and contributed to my sight loss. I increasingly overindulged in academic drinking culture to manage the pain and the isolation. I was even too frightened to ask for reasonable adjustments during my viva exam.

I survived and got my doctorate on the other side, the experience left me with chronic anxiety and depression, and a sincerely held belief that I was fundamentally worthless. I honestly believed that because I was disabled I couldn’t have an academic career. I thought I was too broken and flawed to be allowed to pursue the subject I once loved.

However, my experience was not an isolated one. It’s not difficult to find out about ongoing struggles of disabled students and scholars, just read hashtags like #AcademicAbleism or the recent #WhyDisabledPeopleDropOut. Yet, campuses continue to be designed without step free access, laptops are still being banned, accommodations denied and funding cut. Disabled students are still being excluded from the classroom. The lack of awareness training and accountability in the academy mean that hard won access rights are dismissed with the click of an email.

Although the views of Kauffman and Badar are shocking, the fact that this article was published, represents a fundamental problem with academia and higher education. In too many academic institutions, disability is still ‘abnormal’, because including disabled students is considered too much effort. In essence, no one can be bothered to install a ramp at the Ivory Tower.

Amy stands half smiling on an outdoor staircase. The photo is taken from above, looking down. Amy wears bright red and purple graduation robes and a flat round PhD cap.
Dr Kav

It was only on leaving academia that I found the support and encouragement to realise my potential as a disabled person. I discovered an online community of disabled people who were confident and positive when talking about their disabilities. Yes, we all share the hard days, the challenges, the exhausting grind against access refusals, discrimination and pain, but ultimately it was a space of acceptance.

Total strangers, often on the other side of the world, told me about the support I deserved, they directed me towards the organisations that could assist me. I finally acknowledged to myself that I was allowed help, and actually that I really needed it. I embraced a mobility aid, and shared my journey with hundreds and then thousands of eager and encouraging friends online. These disabled people who according to Kauffman and Bader have so little in common, uplifted me, educated me, and empowered me. With each step and swish of my white cane, I was more confident, safer and happier.

Amy walks along a boat deck at night. She wears a cream and pink floral 50s dress and pink sparkly shoes. She is using her long cane, which is pink with a round roller ball tip.
‘Chic’ disability?

So now I proudly say, I am disabled. I am not an aberration and I do not seek a cure. My disability is a gift, a gift that it took me far too long to realise that I had. My disability is who I am, and I refuse believe that it makes me bad, wrong or broken anymore.

Alongside other academics & disability activists I’ve written a letter challenging the article, the authors & the journal editor. If you also feel strongly about #AcademicAbleism and want to sign the letter please visit https://ladylikepunk.wordpress.com/2019/05/01/an-open-letter-to-the-editor-of-exceptionality-and-to-prof-kauffman-and-dr-bader/ 

Thank you to @DisDeafUprising for bringing this article to my attention.

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