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.

The Evolving Consciousness of the American Mind

“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” This was the opening phrase in a very popular piece featured in The Atlantic last year called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Lukianoff and Haidt argue that students are increasingly developing a habit to catastrophize and they would be better served if they learned to question their own emotional reactions rather than view everything as a micro aggression and engage in what the authors term “vindictive protectiveness.”

The claim that colleges have become hyper sensitive hubs for political correctness is not a new one, and is espoused by everyone from actors to politicians to my own college classmates. However, the rapid dismissal of any form of reprehension as an exercise of political correctness is misguided. While the need for dialogue on college campuses is important, the need to promote broader understanding of the experiences of the historically silenced is equally paramount.


Source: Google Images

The term “microaggression” was coined by Chester Pierce in 1970 to call out the dismissals non-black Americans inflict on African Americans, and was later extended to other marginalized groups. As a recent graduate myself, I wish the term did not need to be used, but it is unfortunately all too appropriate as these transgressions are far too commonplace by students and faculty at institutions of higher learning. While the examples provided in the article are extreme, they do not adequately represent the experiences of students who live it on a daily basis. By focusing on the most extreme examples, the authors label this movement to be more cognizant of the ways in which we, unintentionally or intentionally, minimize the contributions and experiences of historically silenced students as “simpleminded demonizing.” They fail to acknowledge the stark daily realities of some students: 1) the experience of raising a point in a class discussion, only to be ignored and have the same point validated by someone else, 2) the experience of receiving an A on a paper with the words “Is this your work or is it borrowed from somewhere else? Either way, great work!” inscribed next to the grade, as if to temper the experience of a surprising success, or 3) the experience of having a guest speaker come into a class and ask for a round of introductions (with a joking request to mention names and IDs without discussing past felonies), while making eye contact with the lone black male student in the class. These are real examples that serve as a daily reminder that some students do not belong. They may stem from genuine ignorance or an attempt at “lighthearted” humor, but they leave an indelible mark.

These transgressions are a symbol of the power exercised by some groups over others, both historically and at present. When we discuss the harmful impacts of structural power, be it racism, sexism, ableism, or the like, we often discuss examples of blatant transgressions. Examples of this rhetoric abound in Republican front runner Donald Trump’s speeches. Systemic racism however, can be less obvious, more pervasive, and even more damaging. Micro aggressions are one small attempt at acknowledging this exercise of power, which is pervasive, insidiously permeating every aspect of one’s life.

Students are not looking to be coddled. They are looking for an appropriate forum to openly name and discuss these experiences- one would think an institution of higher learning would be the natural place for such a discussion. Universities cannot simply focus on increasing enrollment of underrepresented minorities and other disadvantaged groups- that is simply half the battle. When a student does make it through the gates of the ivory tower, they often do not receive the necessary support they need. Instead, they navigate the foreign space themselves, exposed to symbolic reminders and intentional or unintentional slights by peers or faculty that perpetuate the notion that they do not belong. It is not enough to simply get them through the door- we must do more. The authors claim that student peers and teachers at colleges are increasingly feeling more vulnerable and reticent to voice their opinions. They use this as a justification to belittle the importance of calling out micro aggressions or issuing trigger warnings where appropriate. Such an argument comes from a position of immense privilege and lack of understanding. In reality, the practice of choosing our words more wisely and being more attentive to which groups of people we are addressing is representative of an evolution of consciousness, more than an exercise in political correctness or a form of coddling. Your free speech rights are not being curtailed by any individual or institution- rather, the social mores are changing. When we prioritize the discomfort of the students who feel their speech is being policed by social norms, we cast aside the repeated experiences of students who bear the brunt of structural systems that are racist, sexist, or ableist every single day.

No doubt, the solution is not as simple as disqualifying a person from speaking on campus purely due to their past record. However, if we reiterate the importance of having conversations, we must also ensure that the burden of discussing and educating others on these issues does not fall solely on those who experience it every single day. We must ensure that they are adequately supported and that their experiences are acknowledged and validated. We must ensure that there are indeed anonymous portals to report these transgressions and have well-trained staff or faculty members to lead a conversation around these issues. We must recognize that refusing to call out micro aggressions explicitly in the spirit of developing thicker skin is not an exercise in neutrality or a form of cognitive therapy, but a choice in itself to further entrench deep-seated attitudes in structural systems of power. We must remember that for every Donald Trump at the helm of a ship, there are ten others willing to perpetuate institutions of power, including in higher education, and remind marginalized students of their rightful place in society.


Source: Google Images

Let us be clear: there is no question that individuals have the right to express themselves freely, without fear of any retribution. Free speech is a core tenet of American democracy. However, the argument that we need to protect professors and students who increasingly feel uncomfortable expressing themselves due to a hyper sensitive college culture is highly problematic and flawed. It prioritizes the discomfort of some in privileged positions of power over the daily marginalization of others. Let us strive to be better. Let us openly acknowledge the damaging transgressions against historically silenced students (as well as staff or faculty members) that constantly echo the fact that some voices are more deserving than others. Let us follow the tide of an evolving consciousness in students across universities and move toward a more meaningful definition of inclusion.