As a Ph.D. student studying special education, my multiple and intersecting marginalized identities have been central to my scholarly work and exploration of issues that affect students with disabilities. I am acutely aware that this lens shapes my process of knowledge acquisition and production. Before I started graduate studies, my hope was that my lived experiences as a disabled woman of color would be valued as a form of expertise. But I have found on multiple occasions that when I have explicitly drawn on those identities to support my viewpoints, other academics have interpreted my claims through a deficit lens.
The following exchange points to the ways in which entangled racial, gendered and ableist hegemonic structures have threatened the legitimacy of my insights and devalued the perspective I bring to this work. An instructor in a graduate department of special education who identifies as white, female and able-bodied shared that she had developed a new activity for her Introduction to Disability course. Overlooking the fact that she was speaking to a blind individual, she proceeded to explain to me how she had her students blindfold themselves and play a game of tag. She spoke with obvious pride about her belief that not only did her students really enjoy the activity, but it also provided an opportunity for them to develop empathy for those without sight. I had a visceral reaction to her authoritative claims of expertise in teaching about the experiences of a marginalized group that I identify with.
Although the activity she spoke about was fun for students, I found it offensive and irresponsible that the experience of an entire group of disenfranchised individuals could be conceptualized as a game. Not only did this activity minimize the complexity and struggle of the blind student’s experience, in my opinion it also poked fun at the challenges of the group as a whole. I pushed for including the perspective of living with a disability in the course content and suggested bringing in the narratives of people with disabilities who have varied experiences in special education. She expressed skepticism about the time involved in organizing this and ended the discussion after this suggestion. She denied me the opportunity of providing input on and co-teaching the course with her in future semesters.
Educational institutions have historically been structured to meet the needs of white, Christian, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, male-dominated identities. One lever for reinforcing these norms is through granting power to objective arguments and devaluing emotion, particularly when expressed by members of minority groups. The instructor I interacted with used rationalization to uphold the status quo, arguing that the time and resources required to make the curricular changes I suggested were not feasible for this course. Because she drew on logic to build her position, any challenge to this stance could be interpreted as irrational. Her reliance on logic as a response to my display of affect can be attributed to white logic and the eternal objectivity it grants to elite whites and eternal subjectivity it imposes on nonwhites. This experience serves to illustrate how a field focused on serving the needs of the disabled simultaneously devalues our expertise.
Meanwhile, negative attitudes toward disability are far from a specter of the past. As an example, in recent news, the states of Alabama and Washington adopted protocols for rationing lifesaving medical care that discriminated against and limited access to these resources for individuals with disabilities. Ultimately such policies highlight societal beliefs that disabled individuals have less value than the able-bodied.
Now more than ever, there is a dire need for the elevation of the voices of the disabled in the research, policy and practice that impacts our lives. Understanding the power of knowledge production for societal transformation, and the fact that subjectivity based on one’s lived experiences is inherent to this process, colleges and universities must admit and retain more graduate students who are marginalized in multiple ways, including those who have disabilities.
In addition, for those of you who also feel personally marginalized as scholars, I’d like to share the following summary of five understandings that have helped me find the strength to finish the degree and may be of help to you, as well.
Engaging in scholarly research and associated coursework is not a neutral act. There is emotional labor required in sitting with published texts measuring attitudes toward people with disabilities, and to see terms such as “deviant,” “inadequate,” “pessimistic” and “ego-driven” used to describe disabled individuals. It can be demoralizing to read text after text in which disability is connected with deficit and still hold a belief that I can garner the respect and support needed to change inequitable systems from within.
This work can also be healing. Day by day, my connections to the work have deepened, and I see my lived experience reflected in many of the texts I choose to engage with. I learned to undo problematic framings of disability and internalization of the deficit mind-set that comes with my disability, race/ethnicity and gender. Instead I’ve learned to structurally analyze my experiences in the world. I’ve cried reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, seeing my process in graduate school as one of acquiring critical consciousness. I have found solidarity with peers in ethnic studies, gender studies and disability studies, as well as strength in the conversations we’ve had around the readings for courses.
Legal accommodations do not directly translate into access. The lack of access to reasonable accommodations comes in many forms and is a consistent challenge. Peers, professors and mentors who know about my disability-related challenges and associated legal accommodations care about my success. However, some have at times forgotten to provide these legal and necessary supports on a consistent basis. I have been asked while making a presentation in front of a large group to read text off a slide verbatim, although my vision does not allow me to do so. I have sat in classes unprepared for discussion because I have not received the readings in an accessible format.
Further, with regard to academic accommodations, some professors have shamed me for taking longer to complete an assignment, have complained about how my accommodations are inconvenient for their schedules and have asserted their authority in ways that have made me feel uncomfortable. But it has been helpful to know my legal rights with regard to accommodations and to advocate for those rights to be respected.
Building community with like-minded peers and mentors is my priority. The intersection of my race, gender and disability identities has led me to feel that important perspectives are unrepresented in the conversations of affinity groups based on one of these identities. Because no single affinity group meets my needs, I have sought out many groups and broadened my connections on my campus. I find comfort in talking to people who have similar lived experiences to my own. They understand intuitively what I am saying and don’t question the validity of my claims when I speak about any microaggressions I’ve encountered during the day.
They are also the people I can go to for material resource support, to solve problems together and to strategize for systems-level change. The added benefit of friendships with peers who have shared lived experiences in graduate school is that they are also colleagues in research. In this way, our conversations and community-building efforts not only support our individual health and well-being but also enhance the production of scholarly work that centers identity.
Humility is not negotiable. Even though I straddle multiple marginalizing identities, I cannot claim authority on the experiences of those who are marginalized in any of those identity forms or other forms. I can only speak for my own experience and need to listen with alert ears and an open heart. I continue to work on striking a delicate balance between accessing confidence and self-worth, while also staying open to experts who can fill in gaps in my knowledge and help me continue to refine my lens.
Whether or not faculty and leaders in the field externally validate this belief, I belong here. My perspective is needed. Even those people who are allies and believe in enhancing diversity and equity have gaps in their understanding of certain forms of marginalization. My lived experiences allow me to help fill in those gaps. I continue to fight to hold the door open for those who will come after me to further expand upon, refine and enhance the vision for an inclusive society.