Simply put, this university is ableist. The physical structure of the campus as well as the attitudes of students and faculty can make both learning and success as defined by the Washington & Lee community inaccessible to disabled students.
Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against disabled people in favor of abled individuals. It can encompass acts of aggression that can be easily characterized as violent, but more often it occurs through instances in which disabled persons become squeezed out of spaces of life due to inaccessibility. While these more passive acts in which abled bodies are treated as normative do not seem classically violent, this type of marginalization that dictates what one can do and what one cannot and what is normal and what is not at the very least symbolically perpetuates ideology that leads to violence against disabled people.
The ableism here on campus is certainly not intentional, and therefore our tone is not meant to be accusatory. However, the fact that the discrimination is unintentional does not make is excusable. In this piece, we hope to help begin and continue both the conversations and the structural and policy developments that will make this campus as accessible as possible to as many students as possible.
A couple of notes before continuing:
1) We will be using identity-first language rather than person-first language in this piece. This linguistic choice is highly personal, and neither is wholly right nor wrong. Our choice reflects the radical resistance of identity-first language against the tendency for abled people and society as a whole to treat “disabled” as a bad word and cast disability as something shameful.
2) The term disability broadly refers to a physical or mental characteristic that significantly limits one’s ability to engage in one or more major aspect of life such as seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating. This campus is exclusionary towards many different both physical and mental disabilities.
Physical Campus Inaccessibility
If you broke your leg today, which buildings on campus would you be able to access easily? Where on campus would you want to be living? The hills, the stairs, the heavy doors, the lack of elevators make it clear that W&L lacks in physical accessibility. Though the Science Center and Leyburn library are great examples of accessible design, there are newly renovated buildings like the Center for Global Learning and Tucker Hall that make access for disabled people exhausting. Who asked for more stairs around Tucker?
To get to a class in the Science Center, a mobility-related disabled student can enter through the powered main entrance double doors, proceed to the center of the building to take the elevator, and proceed to their next class. In the CGL for example the same individual must enter through a side entrance, cross the building to get to the elevator, and still see a small set of stairs on the second floor that may be impassible. While the CGL is theoretically accessible but highly inconvenient, narrow hallways, heavy doors, and unavoidable stairs make buildings such as Payne and Newcomb Halls virtually inaccessible for some. It is absolutely necessary that ADA compliance be an essential element in the construction of a building. Contractors’ and engineers’ designs consider many features like pretty columned facades and preservation of historic structure for tax credits, but accessible design has not received the same degree of emphasis.
A key feature in any inclusive design is the inclusion of stakeholders in the design process to make sure everyone’s needs are heard and considered. Wilson Hall, when recently renovated, lost the fume hoods very necessary for many art classes. This mistake could easily have been avoided by consulting a faculty artist.
Design should be thought of not as what the design brings but as who the design excludes.
When students cannot easily and consistently access their academic buildings and their housing, W&L excludes qualified students from campus, simply due to the inaccessibility of housing, the many hills and stairs, and the inconsiderate design in regards to mobility. As a first year, a student with limited mobility would have to live in Graham-Lees in order to escape unavoidable stairs and live closer to academic buildings, but living in Graham-Lees involves tight hallway corners, cramped bathrooms, and only one wheelchair-accessible entrance. As a sophomore, most fraternity, sorority, and theme houses lack elevators. Woods Creek and Third Year Housing require both walking up or down mountains of stairs. The one handicap accessible Third Year house is on the upper level. Though public safety is very helpful in bringing students to and from classes, to rely on that for three or four years is a limitation in autonomy. In order for our campus to be fully accessible, all individuals here must be able to independently conduct themselves through all public spaces. For an adult to have to rely upon other adults for the completion of basic life activities is not only inconvenient and infantilizing but may perpetuate ideas of disabled persons as burdening when they are simply trying to navigate inaccessible spaces.
Beyond the physical structures, the attitudes that we have here both set and uphold the idea that being abled is a fundamental requisite to succeed. And that absolutely needs to change. One can be disabled and successful in a system where they are allowed the opportunity.
Physical education and language requirements are ableist.
Both of the above are not absolutely mandatory. There are currently options in place for disabled individuals, but they are not well known, and it is assumed that every individual on campus will do their absolute best and give everything they have to complete four terms of PE and four terms of language. Only under very specific circumstances will one have the opportunity for an alternate path.
While there are options in place, they cannot do their job until they are normalized and easily available. Disability is quite often invisible, and if we continue to require students to jump through hoops to prove their need to their community, we will continue to deny these available options to those who need them. Additionally, there is no distinct border between abled and disabled. The students who occupy this border space could benefit immensely from flexibility in requirements as it could relieve of the burden of trying to prove that they are “disabled enough” and allow them the opportunity to create an environment that works best for themselves.
Attendance requirements and participation requirements are ableist.
Both assume that individuals have the ability to choose how successful they will be in each of these categories, but those assumptions necessitate a fully cooperative body and mind. One’s health and disability lies outside of their control, and setting requirements that ask individuals to take accountability for these aspects of their life not only further inhibits disabled individuals but casts them as irresponsible and unsuccessful. Again, there are accommodations available, but these requirements perpetuate the normalization of the marginalization of disabled individuals and therefore enforce an exclusionary and ableist definition of success.
These changes are not about making classes easier or requirements more lenient. They are about making the curricular framework flexible, accommodating, and accessible as well as about broadening the community understanding of what makes up the curricular framework. A liberal arts education must be well-rounded, but when we over-specify exactly how that education is to be completed, we ultimately only become exclusionary.
Perhaps more impactful, though, are our community assumptions regarding individual success. We operate within a system in which we feel we must utilize every minute of our lives and constantly push past the limitations that we may encounter. Nothing is ever enough. A successful person is one who relentlessly persists in pursuit of an unreachable point. To stop or to rest is to give up or to settle. This type of life is not healthy for anyone, but it can directly exclude disabled people from the societal definition of success. In a society where one’s value is tied to their success, this exclusion casts disabled individuals as lesser somehow when all individuals, abled or disabled, are inherently valuable regardless of their contributions to society. These problematic ideas surround us and produce and perpetuate ableism on our campus.
One can be successful and disabled. Success can take an infinite number of forms; for the health of our society as a whole, we need to embrace and incorporate caring for ourselves into our definition of success. We need to destroy the ideas that our worth is tied to our ability to contribute and that we must constantly push ourselves until we reach our breaking points. They are not only ableist but detrimental to every member of society. These are ideas that we have the opportunity to interrupt and terminate here on campus by changing the way we address and think about our everyday lives.
How You Can Help
Poor accessibility and ableism on campus is not going to change over night. But there are some crucial, tangible steps that we can make towards creating a more universally accessible campus. We can begin making attitudinal changes in order to create a more accessible and healthy space for all students. The seemingly subtle changes in ideology can have immense community impacts as far as creating an inclusive space. Beyond individual and community attitude changes, though, there are very limiting physical structures and upcoming opportunities to begin to change them. Doremus, a current example of low accessibility, is planning to undergo renovation starting in June 2018. The buildings like Doremus undergoing renovation in the near future could become more inclusive through consultations with organization dedicated to accessibility, such as the Lexington Disabilities Services Board, during the design and construction process.
However, as students, we have the greatest opportunity to impact community beliefs and attitudes about success and disability. The societal pressure that marginalizes populations comes from the ways we think and conduct ourselves. By growing up in a society that equates individual value with productivity, we are each riddled with ableist ideology. But we have the opportunity to amend and expand our community understanding of success on this campus and in spaces beyond. Our value is not tied to our productivity. The concepts of success and productivity are subjective and currently entirely too narrowly defined. We as a community must alter the ways we view and think about the world to create a future that is not only more inclusive but healthier for all individuals.