Disability, and It's a Long Way to Tipperary

By Stephen Kuusisto


“Well what do you want?” asks the ableist.

“We have to weigh your request for assistance against all the other non-disabled people’s requests.”

The ableist is in her forties, young enough to know better, was educated at a university, must have come into contact with feminism. Surely knows about equality. That’s the rub. She knows and has decided she doesn’t care.

Educated ableism is the worst.

I can take the cab driver in (name your city) who’s country of origin has no “out and about” disabled. He sees a man, dressed rather professionally (suit and tie, even pants…) who happens to be blind—who’s traveling with a professionally trained dog, and he’s never seen such a thing. Never. For the cabbie, the very idea of a successful, self-navigating, fully engaged blind person is without analogy. He decides to drive away, leaving the man and dog to contemplate what’s now called “micro-aggression”.

Ah, but educated ableism is absolutely the worst.

Yesterday a student at Syracuse University, who shall remain unidentified, told me how she was recently humiliated by a professor. She’s an autist. She has to wear headphones—Bose noise cancellation headphones. There are moments when the world is too much with her. It doesn’t matter where she is. She needs a break.

She put on her Bose in the midst of a lecture.

The professor accosted her, even though she has letters on her person from the Office of Disability Services explaining her accommodation.

Educated ableism is the worst.

The educated ableist believes he or she is freed from having to ask questions.

Such freedom does not generally exist in the worlds of ideas, so the assumption, the grand self-absorbed interior contract that an educated ableist must make is highly solipsistic fiction.

Some days I walk across campus, and here I mean any campus for I travel widely, speak at all kinds of colleges and universities, and recognize how sculpted and interiorized are faculty who stare at me as I approach on sidewalks. They think because I’m blind I can’t see them staring, taking their surveys, driving their educated projectionist ableism into my thorax with their eyes.

“Here’s another clue for you all…” The blind can tell you’re staring.

They can tell you’re sizing them up or down.

I have plenty of academic colleagues who size me down.

And yes, of course there are plenty who don’t.

Yet, I expect more from academic administrators, professors, even the meter maid.

Now, the educated ableist is bad, no question. But there are still worse things.

For instance, there’s the disabled faculty member who likes to “rank” on other disabled people.

My black colleagues know this biz. It’s the old, “are you black enough” thing.

In the disability world, where there are all too few faculty with disabilities, and accordingly you’d think they would work tightly together, one can encounter the professor who thinks his or her way of navigating or advocating for disability is not only superior to other methods, but is so far superior that (insert topic here) is beneath acknowledgment.

You know what I mean. “I was “on” this issue of accessible widgets long before you were. I’m a better disabled person than you…”

Ableism within the disability community. Imagine that.

It’s a long road to Tipperary.

Tipperary is my code word for dignified, universal, respectful inclusion.

“It’s a long way to go…”


6 thoughts on “Disability, and It's a Long Way to Tipperary

  1. Your post is intriguing. I’ve encountered so many instances in academia (directly and indirectly) where “disabilities” are not only ignored, but often used as weapons against the “disabled.” I experienced this recently, as it concerns my PTSD. Unfortunately for me, and many others, PTSD has become a universal code word for “violent, suicidal, reactionary, unpredictable.” The stigma, I discovered, and the unfair bias coming with it, are virtually indefensible.

    Even though the vast majority with this disorder never become violent, or suicidal, or homicidal- our society nonetheless treats us this way. Universities, very sadly targets of mass shooters these days, have become hyper-sensitive to any indication of a threat. Announce for whatever reason you have PTSD, and all of a sudden you are “on the radar.” The hazing that follows is often debilitating.

    Although I was fortunate to be raised with a distinct emphasis on the principles of non-violence, and I have never once become violent in my 54 years, the stigma of my PTSD has generated irrational fear. On those occasions when I reached out to support services of academic institutions concerning my disability, I was shunned, or worse, put under a microscope. Universities are the last place I’d expect that kind of treatment, yet, it is the only place I felt the indignity of discrimination. The discrimination is worse than the actual handicap.

    For people like you, and myself, in this boat, I like to quote Fred Rogers:

    “Part of the problem with the word disabilities is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”

    From The World According to Mister Rogers (Kindle Locations 142-146).

    And these, it seems to me, are increasingly the disabilities of academia.

  2. Hi David: Your experiences are entirely equivalent to mine and to many thousands of others who have sought or are pursuing a higher education. The failures of academia with disability and inclusion are legion, our victories precious, but still limited. Keep up the good work and the good fight for dignity.

  3. A different version of discrimination by persons with disabilities against others with disabilities occurs in faculty/staff unions, where the chapter president or other officer with disabilities helps to “enable” the discrimination by the campus administration by ignoring, ostracizing, even retaliating against union members (and even, as in my case, union delegates) with disabilities who dare to insist upon disability rights under the law.

    Campus administrations and union officers are very adept at rewarding the person with disabilities who will perform this kind of service against other persons with disabilities. Indeed, one of these rewards is often a prized acceptance into the hierarchy of the union leadership and access to the perqs that go with such positions. Not to strain the analogy, but it has been reported that similar reward systems existed in the Nazi death camps.

    The reader may be thinking that if the national unions with which these locals are affiliated are made aware of the harassment by union officials which members with disabilities encounter when they dare to ask that, for example, parking lots be brought into compliance and handicapped parking meet the ADAAG standards, that something would be done about it.

    No, not at all. Take AFT, for example: the President has blogged about disability rights but when the national leadership is made aware of abuses of power by locals, and even where discrimination is forbidden by the national constitution with which locals’ constitutions are supposed to conform and they do not conform in word or deed, the answer is: limited lip service and then…silence.

    It is thus becoming understandable that so many shootings are taking place on America’s campuses as the newest version of what came to be called “going postal” (named after the rash of post office shootings by employees, et al.). As long as people perceive dramatic disconnects between the rhetoric of inclusion and freedom engaged in by higher education administrations and the actual slow tortures that those same administrations — and their company unions — inflict upon persons who belong to “protected classes” or even not, we are likely to see more gun violence, and not necessarily perpetrated by the members of protected classes themselves (recall however, that those with mental illness are indeed members of a protected class).

    It is the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of academia that is not lost on its lowliest student or employee or the public — an hypocrisy and concomitant abusiveness that seem to calls out for redress and, given the inaccessibility and non-responsiveness of both campus support systems and the courts, we are seeing many more of these personal dramas played out — and now played out in a drastically deadly fashion. The ethos of the American campus has changed; campuses are no longer havens for freedom and openness — they are the new battleground in the quest for justice — sadly often then transformed into vigilante justice.

    • Dear P.A.L.- I do take exception to the link you suggest between violence and homicide with unfair treatment on college campuses. The propensity of any person to resort to violence I think lacks any justification other than fending off a violent attack that threatens someones life.

      Unfair treatment has existed since the beginning of time, yet these college massacres are a recent phenomenon. To suggest a link between the two does great disservice to victims and their surviving loved ones. First and foremost, people resorting to mass homicide are insane. And so any perception they might have of “injustice” cannot be based in any reality.

      The cowardice of their action is an unmistakable indication that they are monsters, an no indignity they may have suffered can reasonably be linked to their behavior.

      • Please note that mental illness and “insanity” are disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and most state anti-discrimination laws.

        My posting does not condone violence at all; it simply describes phenomena and conditions reported in the press at large.

        I daresay that unfair treatment at post offices probably existed since the days of the Pony Express, yet “going postal” became a repetitive, cultural and linguistic twentieth-century phenomenon. So, too, it seems in this century with educational institutions: a new rash of vigilante “justice” — often perpetrated by those who perceive themselves to have been treated unfairly — appears to be on the rise.

        The old adage appears ironically applicable in the face of the nature of the criticism levied against my posting: “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

        • “Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”

          From The World According to Mister Rogers (Kindle Locations 111-114).

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