Disability: The Inconvenient Afterthought in Social Justice

When we speak about social justice, we frequently talk about racial justice, gender discrimination, or class-based discrimination as we should, but disability is almost always a footnote, if it is mentioned at all. Few people know about the active complicity of the United States government in the mass sterilization programs against the disabled in the early 1900s, and the apologies that came decades later in North Carolina and even California. Our history textbooks do not dwell on the fact that the Nazi eugenics program was, in large part, inspired by research taking place at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island and that Nazi racial science was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. While societal attitudes toward sterilization and disability may have shifted, true diversity and inclusion, especially on university campuses, remains an illusion.

By way of example, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health (HCSPH) recently conducted a Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) assessment, analyzing the degree of diversity, equity, and inclusion in its educational environment. This “multi-phase, mixed-method assessment” interviewed graduate students, academic appointees, and staff members, and found an overall “lack of clarity and consensus about commitment to diversity,” as well as “sexism, racism, and classism in the School climate and culture.” I was pleasantly surprised to note that the survey actually examined disability at all, but the results are buried in the last few pages of the report. Even when it was examined, the results were glossed over without detailed qualitative insight. Here is one example of such a finding:

“When disaggregated by ability status, the results show that those with a diagnosed disability were more likely than their non-diagnosed counterparts to often not express opinions in fear of backlash (42% and 29% respectively) and feel devalued on campus (35% and 20% respectively).” 

The above excerpt appears on page 99 and is not followed by any qualitative insights into why this is occurring or what the attitudes of students, faculty, and staff are toward the issue. Racism, sexism, and classism, by contrast, are explicitly named on countless occasions and detailed extensively under the ‘key qualitative findings’ section. Disability is presumably roped into the “Marginalizing Classroom Climates for Historically Underrepresented Populations” section, although never explicitly named. The last straw in this expensive yet poorly prepared study is that disability does not even crop up a single time in the executive summary or the final recommendations. It is as if the intention was to hear just enough people to check the disability box, but never once put adequate thought into addressing the concerns.

At the end of the day, the argument is not that racism, sexism and classism get undue attention, but rather that disability is always sidelined. Inclusion, as a whole, is treated as an issue in passing, only to be addressed when student protests pose a serious threat to the university image. Diversity offices are underfunded and support staff are inadequately trained and supported. It is high time that universities get serious about taking the voices of students with disabilities seriously and educate staff and faculty on making the educational environment more inclusive.