OPINION: Disability support goes beyond accommodations

A wheelchair sits at the edge of a rainbow staircase
Graphic by Anaga Srinivas

I am transgender, queer and disabled. I am able to be as out and proud of my identities as I am today because of key social, cultural and legal events: the Stonewall riots, the 504 sit-ins, various pro-LGBTQIA+ marches in Washington, D.C., the Capitol Crawl, Lawrence v. Texas, Olmstead v. L.C., the striking of Proposition 8 in California and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All of those events contribute to rich communities with long histories and cultures within the United States. It would be foolish to argue that LGBTQIA+ people or disabled people do not have substantial cultural movements.

Yet at the Claremont Colleges, celebration of queer cultures is ingrained in our community, while celebration of disabled cultures is less visible. This is in large part due to the lack of any sort of disability cultural center on the campuses.

The 7C Student Disability Resource Center and disability services at all seven colleges do good work. Their work, however, is focused on academic and housing accommodations. 

Events focused on disability history and culture on campus are more often held by student groups or through academic programming, although the SDRC and campus-specific offices provide financial and social support for some events.

The bigger issue is that neither these offices nor any other office provide continued cultural or social support for disabled students in the same way that, say, the Queer Resource Center does for LGBTQIA+ students. It’s easy to see why: fulfilling their legal mandate to provide accommodations to hundreds of disabled students is already enough of a task.

Failing to see disability as a core identity (akin to gender, race or socioeconomic status) and instead viewing it as a pathology to be accommodated alienates disabled students from our community’s history and culture. The colleges may be doing what is required of them by law to the best of their ability, but it isn’t enough.

Disability accommodations do have roots in the social model of disability, which views disability as just as much the failure of an ableist society as a pathology or problem. But a true social model view of disability services would also acknowledge the history and culture of disability.

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Young people have always had a significant role in disability rights movements. It is imperative that young disabled people know this — know our community’s history — and that we know it as we transition into college, adulthood and lives of our own. 

For many marginalized students, college is the first time we can meet other young people like us. Disability is no exception.

Disability history, like any history of a marginalized group, is full of struggle, violence and pain, but it is also full of pride and wonder. To ignore or deny the history and culture of the community that owns it is to pretend that disability is static, negative and isolating. It is to deny the existence of the power of disability rights movements, and it is to place shame on the shoulders of disabled people just for existing.

I don’t want to imply that culturally competent and culture-specific services in Claremont completely remedy systemic injustices for marginalized students, faculty and staff of any group. Marginalized community members of all backgrounds are routinely screwed over, and it’s often marginalized community members who do the bulk of work to make sure our communities get what they need on campus.

I also don’t want to imply that I expect the already overworked staff members of the SDRC and campus-specific disability services offices (many of whom are disabled themselves) to take on the burden of running a disability cultural center. The colleges, as a whole, should take on the task of creating and staffing such a center, just like they have done with cultural programs and centers for many other marginalized groups.

We also are not starting from nothing: the SDRC already provides a small lending library of books on disability history and culture, hosts sessions teaching students about assistive technology, is starting an Autism Support Program this year and provides spaces for student-run support and social groups to meet. It is possible to expand on these existing services and learn from the experiences of schools who already have disability cultural centers.

Lack of cultural and historic knowledge within any group breeds complacency — it is easy to scam someone who doesn’t know their rights. In conversations with other disabled students, I have had to explain basic historical, cultural and even legal concepts — advice that should not fall to a 21-year-old student with no formal training.

Disability is natural. It has always existed and will always exist. To only provide accommodations as “disability services” is to deny disabled students, staff and faculty of a history and culture so many of us are ignorant of. It imperils our future to not know our past.

We deserve better. We and our communities have fought for too long to be denied pride, belonging and a space of our own on campus.

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Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a 4+1 B.A./MPH public health major from Sunnyvale, California. They recommend everyone read “You Get Proud by Practicing” by Laura Hershey for another look at what disability culture is.

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