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Reframing models of inclusion for college students with disabilities

by Caelyn Randall | Apr 6, 2018

Caelyn Randall pictureCaelyn Randall is a ​doctoral student in Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. Their research focuses on how race and disability are constructed through processes of criminalization.

Any student who has pursued (or even tried to pursue) disability accommodations in higher education knows that faculty, ​instructors, and other students often view disability in the classroom with suspicion. Often couched ​in concern about keeping the classroom “fair,” such suspicion is grounded in the myth that students with disabilities may be faking their disability and/or the notion that providing individual learning access offers students with disabilities an unfair advantage over other students. These suspicions are conditioned by a neoliberal model of scarcity that suggests the classroom is, fundamentally, a space of competition that should confer scholastic advantage (in the form of higher grades and thus access to elite resources) to the highest performing students. In this ​model, students with disabilities are figured as a potential threat to the stability of the classroom specifically, and higher education more broadly, by challenging the “common sense,” ableist, capitalist, meritocratic norms that govern ​it.

In being figured as a potential threat, students with disabilities are often perceived as lacking the necessary ethos to credibly narrate their own needs. Disability advocates on college campuses have tried to ameliorate this problem of credibility by appealing to the legal obligations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability​-related legislation. Such a move, however, while importantly offering routes for legal recognition of disabilities, inclusion in the academy, and a means of resolving individual discrimination, it can (and often does) obscure systems of violence such as white supremacy.

In what follows, I outline how disability and deception are historically linked and illustrate how the accommodation model for inclusion is dependent upon surveillance logics aimed at rooting out deceptive, undeserving actors whose threat is always already disabled and raced. The discursive construction of such a threat privileges whiteness and legible physical disability as incorporable qualities and forestalls systemic, material change. Alternately, I argue that disability justice advocates focus on working against carceral systems and practicing Universal Design.

As a historically, geographically, and discursively contingent category, disability is conceptually unstable and thus available for feigned use. Scholar Deborah Stone argues that the indeterminacy of disability is a condition for suspicion and has linked disability with the need to detect deception, an operant logic that continues to inform social views and political policy on disability. When ​the state is involved in the allocation of resources based on disability status, surveillance measures are implemented to separate deserving people from undeserving people. This link between disability and deception and the separation of deserving and undeserving recipients of social welfare also gestures toward the moral valence of the distrust of students with disabilities; at stake is the possibility that students might reap the benefits of civil rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, without having sufficiently labored or suffered in order to receive them.

The highly regulated process of gaining accommodations that begins with attaining documented “proof” of disability from a doctor (or in many cases, multiple doctors) has not sufficiently quelled faculty and student suspicion. In other words, implementing security measures does not dissolve the association between disability and deception but rather requires the continued affective association between disability and deception in order to legitimize the presence of such measures (see Sara Ahmed’s Cultural Politics of Emotion). In turn, continued suspicion, especially on the part of faculty members, often keeps students from pursuing and/or using educational accommodations for disabilities. As two faces of a bipartite regime of disability management then, stigma and surveillance keep students from pursuing accommodations but also work to limit the amelioration of ableist structures to individual rights-based appeals like institutional accommodations, while also obscuring broader systems of marginalization and violence that are conditioned by the discursive enmeshment of racism and ableism.

As many women of color scholars within and outside of disability studies have pointed out (for example, Dorothy Roberts, Jina B Kim, Nirmala Erevelles and Sarah Ahmed), the nature of this threat is always already raced. U.S. police and surveillance practices work to maintain and strengthen the structures of white​ ableism that undergird the nation through legal, discursive, and material networks of containment, which structurally limit the mobility of raced and disabled subjects figured as threats. This reality should inform how we think about models of inclusion for students with disabilities. Frameworks animated by the threat of deception –- ​which organize, at least to some extent, the ADA and other disability rights legislation –- keep us tethered to policies and modes of thinking that are based on determining who is and is not deserving of accommodations and other institutionally bound routes of access. At the same time, it is important to recognize the legal right that students with disabilities have to accommodations, but this should be situated as a strategy of survival rather than the telos of social and political change. Inclusion may grant access to the metaphorical “table,” but it does not require that the table itself be restructured. As I’ve demonstrated, the discursive and socio-political “table” –- whether the nation or the academy –- desperately needs restructuring.

Because being included in the academy is also a matter of being incorporated into a racist and ableist system of labor, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (often misused) call to “account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed,” is paramount. Such an approach to disability justice would cause us to ask how models and practices of inclusion differently affect students of color, undocumented students and international students, queer students, and women. For example, since educational accommodations usually require multiple interactions with doctors and increasingly, ​immigration and ​customs enforcement officials are accessing hospitals and doctors’ offices in order to detain people, undocumented students may be less likely to pursue formal disability accommodations.

Moreover, recent studies have shown (unsurprisingly) that people who have been stopped by the police, even if they are not arrested, are less likely to interact with “surveilling institutions,” ​such as universities, hospitals, and other medical establishments. Given that young people of color contend with much higher rates of contact with police officers than their white counterparts due to radically disproportionate surveillance of black and brown communities by the police, this study suggests that, if getting disability accommodations requires many points of contact spanning multiple institutions, then students of color may be less likely to pursue accommodations. Indeed, black students are statistically underrepresented among college students seeking accommodations. Lack of access to medical professionals, in addition with the carceral practices justified by being identified as disabled, may keep poorer students and students of color from pursuing accommodations.

An intersectional approach to disability justice would draw our attention to the way that “carceral imaginaries,” or forms of containment that include policing but also go beyond it to include hospitals, schools, and border policies, invoke racist and ableist reasoning as justification for carcerality. For example, when young people of color and white students display the same behavior, students of color are much more likely to be sent to special education and/or arrested. In this way, disability is deployed in order to justify the isolation and carceral punishment of young people of color in the school-to-prison pipeline. Being labeled as disabled is thus used as a way to control and contain students of color who are perceived to be behavioral threats. For these and other reasons, students of color may be less likely to self-identify as disabled. At the same time, access to health care and mental health care continues to be reduced​, especially in poor communities of color that are pushed out by gentrification​, as police surveillance and criminalization in those same communities continues to increase. This suggests that whatever disability justice may be, it must include working against carceral systems and institutions, increasing access to healthcare and developing university and classroom policy guided by Universal Design principles that benefit all students, regardless of disability identification or access to accommodations.

The architectural and ideological design of any space is constructed with a presumed body -- the typical body imagined in the space (inclusive of race, gender, disability, class, etc.) ​-- in mind, and produces marginalized bodies​, or the excluded, atypical body for whom the space is not designed. No space is value-neutral; rather, every space is value-laden. Universal Design (UD) is a value-explicit design theory that is grounded in the situated knowledges of people who have been systemically marginalized. In this way UD makes explicit the implicit values of most spaces, which are designed for white, able-bodied men. As I’ve suggested here, because of the imbrication of race and disability and because people of color with disabilities often have a different experience with and access to institutional accommodations, it is particularly important to practice UD with the guidance of people of color with disabilities who can speak from their situated knowledge. An additional benefit is that such spaces often become more accessible for many other marginalized folks.

Because UD is grounded in situated knowledge, it cannot be reduced to a simple checklist of do's and don’ts. Rather, UD is a recursive practice of expanding access by seeking input from people who are traditionally marginalized through socio-spatial design. Taken seriously, Universal Design Theory should reconstruct the physical space of our classrooms. These questions should be posed:

  • How are desks organized?
  • Is the classroom accessible to wheelchair users?
  • What kind of voices are most represented in course materials?
  • Do you offer course material in multiple modalities?
  • Do you emphasize the products students are creating or the process of creation
  • Whose voices are centered and elided in class discussion?
  • Do you have a syllabus statement about food and housing insecurity?
  • Do you require “proof” of disability for accommodations?

An intersectional approach to disability access illuminates why models for institutional inclusion must consider the position for students of color with disabilities. Race plays a vital role in determining how disability is perceived and wielded in educational contexts, which can function also carceral systems that work to contain and control black and brown bodies perceived as threats. The weaponization of disability in service of the school-to-prison pipeline means that models of inclusion aimed at ameliorating the threat posed by disability through more surveillance may be less helpful and even harmful to students of color. Instead, I suggest working against carceral systems and adjacent systems that support them through surveillance, and working toward developing classrooms and other educational spaces with universal design in mind. UD isn’t a replacement for other processes of inclusion, but it draws attention and energy away from paradigms oriented by “proof” and deception, and toward collective access.

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