12 September, 2010

Our growing and shrinking island

I got weirdly depressed because my friend was talking positively about the head of disability services at our school, who I sort of loathe. (Way out of proportion to what she actually did to me, which was three years ago, but it just was really bad, and I've gotten the impression that she is really great to students with Real Disabilities and not so good to students with Fake Disabilities--to put it bluntly.) The stuff my friend was saying wasn't really different from what I'd expect for her; the two of them had basically been talking about physical accessibility issues and how they suck at school, and how it's even harder now to get the administration to make things accessible because the two students who were full-time wheelchair users graduated and can no longer be invoked as an obvious example of how shitty things are. And she (the head) has now made the administration promise to clean up ice and snow which my friend is really happy about because he had a lot of trouble getting around last winter. (He's ambulatory but has balance problems.)

I think I'm not good at holding two conflicting ideas at the same time, though. So knowing that she works really hard to make school more accessible for kids with mobility disabilities (which it is admittedly not at ALL) makes me feel bad about the fact that I resent her a lot. I also feel bad about the fact that I'm so into "disability stuff" but I didn't even think about the fact that ice would be a problem for my friend. I think that partly because we're going through the MR-->ID shift right now, and also because there are so many annoying euphemisms like "special needs," "developmental delay," "Down syndrome" (used to mean all ID), and "developmental disability" (used to mean only ID), I have a really bad habit of using the word "disabled" when I'm talking about the issues I am especially interested and entrenched in--the issues of people with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders.

I don't feel good about doing that because I feel like that's exactly what people with physical disabilities sometimes do to us. And it's what some people who identify as allies of disabled people, like the head of disability services, do as well. (In fact I wonder if it's non-disabled allies more than people with Real Disabilities who have such a sense of what a Real Disability is.)

The first time I went on FWD/Forward, I remember being surprised when I read the contributors' descriptions of themselves. Mental illnesses weren't disabilities! Physical disabilities that were invisible weren't disabilities! How could this website be called Feminists with Disabilities, when most of these people weren't Really Disabled? My confusion soon turned into excitement and happiness as I started to feel like maybe, just maybe, I didn't have to apologize four hundred billion times for identifying as disabled. I've really been changed by the disability blogosphere, because I now see issues of ableism, disability, and accessibility as being much bigger and broader and more complex than I thought they were. I know this sounds depressing, but it really isn't, because I can see that many things that I once thought were Problems With No Name are actually related to disability.

However, I guess I also worry that as the definition of "disabled" becomes more broad, there won't be enough attention paid to the needs of people who use wheelchairs. I mean, it makes me really frustrated that I have to depend on my professors' goodwill in order to be successful*, and that I feel like I have nowhere to turn if I have a professor who dislikes me or judges my work harshly because of things related to my disability. At the same time if I do poorly in a class it's not the end of the world. And an infinite number of nice professors can't make campus better for a student who uses a wheelchair. It just completely sucks. I can sort of scrape by in a lot of ways because my impairments clash with people not buildings.

[*I would never, ever go through the disability services office because I know it wouldn't work. On a basic level I need not to be judged for not being able to speak well or understand unspoken rules about what an assignment is supposed to be like--something I can't ask for because a professor is either the kind of person who is going to resent me, or they aren't. Last year when things were really terrible, I asked for some extensions (I've probably asked for fewer extensions than a non-disabled person in the time I've been at school) and I asked to take exams in a separate room on a computer to reduce panic/discomfort. Which is not something that's a stereotype of autism, so I don't think the disability office would support me in asking for that if a professor refused to give it to me.]

I think I just feel guilty sometimes for being so angry about being erased from the mainstream understanding of the word disability. It's funny because to the extent that there is disability stuff at my school, I feel totally erased by that too because it's mainly people with specific learning disabilities. I just go through life feeling there are many things that I'll never be able to do, and I think that something like dyslexia or dyscalculia can shut down certain parts of the world, but sometimes I feel like there's such a small area that I can actually safely move around in and aim for. So I totally find myself mumbling to myself, too, "yeah, come back when you have a Real Disability." Except. You know. Is that ever valid?

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