24 August, 2013

If you don't know who I am

When I graduated from Oberlin in 2011, I had an idea to make a post called "Is Oberlin a good college for students with mental disabilities?" so that prospective students with mental disabilities could get an impression of what it was like. I didn't get around to it in the first two years after college, and I already feel like it's been long enough that I can't really act like an expert on Oberlin. For one thing, there's a nonspeaking Autistic guy going there now and his presence may have changed things.

I do want to talk about a particular phenomenon though and I think it might be something to think about when it comes to any college that has a reputation like Oberlin's. It's from a comment I saw on Oberlin Confessional or ObieTalk, which were anonymous forums where students gossiped, trolled, and tried to find people to have sex with. Some of the discussions were more cerebral than others and this time, people were talking about whether Oberlin was as tolerant as people thought it was.

The comment was something like, "Most people at Oberlin don't understand my experiences or my background, and don't seem motivated to learn. They say they accept everyone, but you can't accept me if you don't know who I am."

It was better written than this and it really struck me. It also reminded me of some of my own experiences as an Autistic student.

I'm not afraid to say that the director of disability services at Oberlin was unhelpful to me. I've heard she did a lot of good things for mobility impaired students, but when it came to me she wasn't very willing to help me and often implied that my disability wasn't real. One time when she was telling me why she had taken away my priority registration, I mentioned that I was going to be a classics major and she said like I was proving her point, "Well the whole classics department practically has Asperger's, you'll be fine there!"

When I got a little older and was more political about things I started getting annoyed by the whole verbal-Autistic-person = geek stereotype, but even aside from the stereotype, there's this idea that as long as an environment is "geeky" or "awkward," it's automatically an accepting environment for Autistic people. We don't need accommodations, we just need geeks.

For me, being around "awkward" people is not that helpful. Sure I might have more to talk about with people who are really into pop culture and I might have a more similar sense of humor to people who identify as geeky or awkward. So on a superficial level, it's easier for me to be roommates with people like that or be seated next to people like that on a cross-country bus trip. Things will go smoothly, conversation-wise.

I'll even go further than that and say that sometimes, geeky or awkward environments can be more accepting places for people who are visibly different because of autism, mental health problems, or learning disabilities and they have often been more comfortable for me than environments that aren't oriented that way.


1. In an academic setting, the teacher and other students being "awkward" doesn't have anything to do with whether the student will be accommodated for learning disabilities, auditory processing disabilities, anxiety, etc; or how the teacher will respond if the student is unable to complete work as fast as other students or in a standard way because of her disability. (This really depended--one thing about Oberlin is that the professors have a lot of freedom about how they do stuff so my professors were able to excuse things or let me do things differently if they wanted to. Obviously, some didn't want to.)

2. When it comes to forming close friendships or close relationships, whether someone is "awkward" doesn't have anything to do with whether they understand what it's like to have a disability and whether they have empathy and respect for someone who's not able to do the things they consider normal. I've had some friends I really got along with on a doing-stuff-together-and-talking-about-stuff level, but who I wouldn't be able to have a really deep friendship with because there are parts of my life that will be a problem or just incomprehensible to them.

3. In both settings, "awkwardness" doesn't prevent non-disabled people from using the r-word or saying fucked up things about Autistic people or disabled people in general, or non-disabled professors teaching Disability Studies classes to mostly non-disabled people without anyone ever acknowledging their privilege, or groups for disabled students never really getting off the ground, or disability not being included when people are talking about marginalized identities.

So that's pretty much what I have to say about Oberlin. And I actually really liked going to Oberlin! But there are limits to "awkwardness."