Unintentional Ableism Abounds at 5Cs

Last semester, the elevator in Pitzer College's Pitzer Hall broke. It remained broken for two weeks.

Every day I walked past that elevator, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, elevator maintenance is tricky and can require a specialist. On the other hand, getting from the dorms to the ground floor, the access road, and the rest of campus is tricky if you can’t take the stairs and that particular elevator is out.

The 'elevator incident,' as I will refer to it, is indicative of the nonchalant and unintentional ableism on campus. When that elevator broke, I can’t imagine that anyone wanted to keep it out of service for two weeks.

Nobody meant to make it harder for disabled and chronically ill students to get around campus. Nobody intentionally tried to instill an air of ableism and hostility towards us.

But, of course, the "elevator incident" did make it harder, and people do make rude, annoying remarks.

In another example, I’ve seen myriad bikes locked to stair handrails when there are signs urging students to not do that — and bike racks are a mere 10 feet away!

No one locks their bike to a railing thinking, “Aha! I'll purposely go out of my way to make the campus less accessible by locking my bike to this railing!”. I do not want to accuse anyone of aiming specifically to do that.

However, I must wonder — how does one miss those signs? How can you push your bike past rows and rows of racks and lock it to a handrail?

I suppose those signs are largely performative to many people. If you don’t see visibly disabled and chronically ill people using those handrails, ramps, or elevators, then those technologies become largely useless.

Out of sight, out of mind.

This places invisibly and semi-visibly disabled people in a bind, where the technology and adaptations we require are not seen as for us. I use a cane to walk (thanks, chronic illness), but if I don’t take my cane out, my need for accessible spaces becomes invisible.

If I take the elevator, I risk being accused of laziness because, of course, I look able-bodied without my cane. If I have my cane, I might avoid questions of laziness, but both my need for the cane and my abilities otherwise may be doubted.

I’ve had people view me and my cane as a curiosity. “Why does an 18-year-old college student need a cane?” they might ask. I’ve faced the assumption that I only have the cane as a fashion implement, not to actually help me.

The reason I have the cane makes discussions even more awkward. Everyone who uses a cane is put in an odd position, but when you don’t have any visible disabilities or injuries, it only gets worse.

I have fatigue and faintness issues due to the medications I take — medications I can’t go off of if I want to maintain my ability to function. I can’t speak for all disabled and chronically ill people, but from my experience, I wish people would just stop asking questions beyond “are you okay?”.

To put it bluntly: I don’t owe anyone any part of my medical history, including why I use a cane. I don’t want to talk about my illnesses to just anyone who asks.

I do not want to say here that you should never ask any disabled or chronically ill person about their history. There are some wonderful educators out there who will talk about their stories and their disabilities.

But I don't want to talk about that. I'm not required to talk to you about my illness and I don’t want to open myself up to intrusive questions from well-meaning people. I also do not want to lie about my conditions, which I have done to keep conversations short.

There’s a balance both abled and disabled/chronically ill people must meet: how do we accommodate the needs of others without devaluing their skills or forcing them into boxes they don’t belong in?

You can see a nasty break of this balance in how many stories disabled people tell of being treated like a child because they are disabled.

I'm chronically ill and I need certain accommodations in order to function properly, but if I have those accommodations, I can succeed. I'm not worthless and I'm not okay with being treated as such.

In another example, accessibility issues go from the irksome, intrusive, and inexplicable to the patently illegal. More than once I’ve seen cars parked in the blue-striped zones next to disabled parking spots.

Disabled and chronically ill people who use these spaces often use mobility devices or other accessibility tools that take up space. To block these zones makes the space adjacent to them less accessible.

It’s understandable that one might want to park in one when faced with a dearth of actual parking spaces, but it’s no different than parking in a disabled space.

Those spaces aren’t meant for you if you don’t have a permit. And that underscores something I wish I could shout to the world: disabled and chronically ill people do not owe you our spaces, our stories, or an explanation about our bodies.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ‘20 is a transmasc queerdo and future public health major from the Bay Area. They’re probably asleep or knitting as you read this.