Are Our Inclusive Communities for Those with Disabilities?

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve challenged myself to have new experiences, which have led me to increasingly realize how hard it is to function in a world that isn’t designed for people with foot drop.  I have a physical disability that can be seen, and although people can see it, I often think of disabilities that aren’t as visual.

Where are our student affairs conversations about any of those who comprise these groups when we talk about social justice? 

In our efforts to create more inclusive communities?

Unfortunately, I can find it only occurring among those like me (or those who are close to us), and I am new to the group.  So, please don’t take what I’m writing here as me speaking on behalf of everyone with a disability, and don’t dismiss it either, as it is insight into one person’s experiences.

Identifying as a person with a disability is not unlike many other identities, except that it is not always visible.  Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the United States.  It is an identity that cuts across race, class, and gender, etc.

As someone who has more recently become disabled, I get it:

The world would be easier if people like me, people who looked abnormal when trying to function in a “normal” way (in my case walking) would just go away.  I feel that message from the systems that exist in the world almost every single day. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I know that the feeling does not belong to just those with a disability.

I’ve spent time considering a few points this semester since attending and presenting at a conference, and participating in recruitment days

Western Illinois University representing at ACPA (I am on the far left)

Western IL University representing at ACPA (I’m the far left)

for the program in which I teach–neither of which were especially challenging for me physically prior to everything occurring.  I am not sharing these points because I want everyone to constantly think about what it must be like to have a physical disability.  In fact, I suspect that most people, even after reading this, will do what I used to do, which is go back to a comfortable, able-bodied routine.  However, I still think I have some points worth sharing, so here are three thoughts for the field of student affairs to consider:

  1. Please understand that I will not walk into a crowded room and work the room, as I don’t know who will be paying attention to where they are walking and/or what might suddenly change about the environment.  In fact, I would prefer to sit and, as I meet people, I will explain to them why I am not getting up.
  2. Just ask me if I need help and know that I am okay with saying that I have a disability.  Perhaps I haven’t had my disability long enough to insist on person first language, and I do understand (deeply) the negative stereotypes that come to mind when folks use the world disabled.  However, after all the work I’ve put into my recovery, the last thing I have energy for is serving as the “word police.”  I get it…if you are describing me, I’m okay if you say “the disabled person”.  I’m just happy that you saw me without me having to remind you that I exist.
  3. Finally, I know there is talk about gender inclusive restrooms within the field, which is great. For me, at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to use any restroom.  At.  All.  So, please stop going into what is often the only accessible stall simply because it has more room.  I know people do it…I used to. I’m six feet tall and used to weigh 36 pounds more than I do now (I’m still considered “big boned”), add to that a backpack, a winter coat, and I feel more comfortable using a larger stall.  Now, I need it. Please don’t hear that we should decide who gets which stall and when. However, for me, there is no getting off the toilet if there is no bar to use to pull myself up.