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Disabled in Graduate School: History and Progress

"I'm younger than the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), but not by much. It has, in theory and sometimes practice, protected me all my life."

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May 2, 2019
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

Today, I want to talk about how understandings of disability and disabled people in higher education have changed (and how they haven't). Over time, the number of disabled students making it to college (and therefore having even the possibility of entering academia or becoming teachers) has increased. Laws like the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) help with that. It's actually codified in U.S. law that "Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society." That's more progressive than most of what I hear about disability outside activist circles.

Of course, some of us went to college before these laws passed. Ed Roberts was well-known within disability rights movements because he attended UC Berkeley as a polio survivor starting in 1962, sleeping in an iron lung in a hospital wing, and then stayed involved in disability rights until his death in 1995. And the first diagnosed autistic person in the U.S. to go to college was  none other than the first diagnosed autistic person in the USA. He graduated in 1958 with a degree in French. It wasn't as common for disabled people to go to college, and colleges could just decide they didn't want to have disabled attendees, but some of us did go.

In 1973, programs receiving federal funding (including many academic institutions) were banned from discriminating solely on the basis of disability by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It's not until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would ban disability discrimination and set certain requirements for accessibility that applied even when federal funding wasn’t involved. The ADA came with a bunch of disabled people crawling up the steps of the Capitol to highlight barriers to full participation, like stairs at a building's only public entrance. Now, in those situations, people who use wheelchairs might get in through the loading dock or the back staff entrance. Still a pain, but they can technically make it into the building.

I'm younger than the ADA, but not by much. It has, in theory and sometimes practice, protected me all my life. I use alternative communication methods as a student, teacher, and researcher, and the ADA is the law backing the disability services office at my school when it tells professors to let me do that. It also backed up the U.S. side of my study abroad program when they told some Tianjin Normal University administrators that no, they could not rescind my acceptance after finding out I'm autistic. It didn't keep those administrators from looking for reasons to have me sent home throughout my time there, but it helped the U.S. side keep them from actually enforcing their opinion that people like me shouldn't be in college.

That doesn't mean everything is solved. I still had to deal with administrators who wanted me out of their program for being autistic. I still take extra steps in order to use my communication supports, because accommodations are still retrofits. Depending on course policies, using accommodations can mean all our classmates know we're disabled. We're still taught to hide our needs, even though doing so can get us accused of having faked them all along. We still get shuffled out, through management and obstacles that aren't obviously related to our disabilities. Even if we are dealing with something clearly illegal, enforcement depends on lawsuits. And even though it's illegal, yes, people deal with the same nonsense here that I dealt with in China. Plenty of people bet successfully on the idea that disabled people don't usually have the time, energy, or resources to sue them over violations of disability law. If a disabled person dealing with access barriers or more overt discrimination isn't up for a lawsuit, there usually isn't anything else we can do. I’ve learned to look for some grad-specific tools: because I read my contract, talked to my union, and had them actually listen, I could go through the bureaucratic hassle of the grievance process if I had an issue related to my graduate assistant duties.

The existence of the ADA and its progeny means there has been progress. Legal action is an option now. An exhausting, messy option that's just several more piles of nonsense to deal with, but an option nevertheless. It means more disabled people who want to go to college or grad school are making it in the door. About 22% of freshmen said they had some sort of learning or psychological disability in a recent survey, which is close to the general population rate of these disabilities. That is progress.  And where do we go from here? I’d like to see more accessibility options made standard, so we don’t need to go through lots of paperwork before using them. I’d like to see more classes that are designed so we aren’t expected to leave our assistive technology at the door (or out ourselves by asking for an exception.)

[Image by Alex Cowan used under a Creative Commons License.]

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