Disability — this wasn’t a word that I had thought of identifying with until the spring before I came to Wellesley. I was simply sure that my medical condition made me a freak, exiled from “normal” society and particularly from youth culture. It wasn’t until a doctor used the label “disability” to describe my condition that I was able to truly analyze the situation I had lived in and the effects that society’s perceptions of me had on my sense of self and self-worth. I became more interested in this subject that gave me a link to hundreds of thousands of other people who shared these same struggles.
As I flipped through the Wellesley course catalog during orientation, I was introduced to the social science and cultural majors that quantify the effects of our accidents of birth. I noted the Africana studies major, women and gender studies major and the South Asian studies major and newly-created Asian American studies minor. There were discussions about advocating for a queer studies major. I thought about how amazing it was that these subjects could be studied in an academic setting, allowing students to have a critical understanding of issues that were vitally personal. However, there was little mention of disability in campus-wide discussions about identity. From orientation to lecture events to talks about diversity from the administration to social critiques of literature, economics and government in academic settings, there was almost nothing that even hinted at disability studies or the value of disabled students’ perspectives and experiences. I thought about the discrimination in the workplace, the ableist attitudes of greater society and the fact that this campus is a complicated obstacle course for anyone with mobility issues. I wondered if all of this simply wasn’t considered when examining how individual identities intersected with social justice and constructions of privilege, as well as how these intersections affected us both on and off campus.
Through mild curiosity and a few idle Google searches, I discovered that what I was thinking was known as disability studies, a growing field offered as classes or even majors at many schools. This was something that I felt I needed to understand. I decided to examine what was available at Wellesley for me to learn about the subject. I embarked on an intensive study of the course catalog. In the end, I might have found a total of two or three classes that mentioned disability. Only one course had any sort of focus on disability, the others merely contained a reference to disability somewhere in the course description. There are many classes that approached economics, sociology, religion, anthropology and possibly even a natural science course through the lenses of gender, race, sexual orientation and class. However, none brought in disability studies theory or addressed the fact that the same oppressive structures that affect the other marginalized communities in our society also affect the lives of people with disabilities.
I read WAAM-SLAM II’s entire proposal last spring and agreed with many points. There were calls for the employment of professors and creation of majors in ethnic and Latin@ studies. While the document called for for increasing accessibility on campus, I noticed was that there was no call for a course — forget a major — on disability studies.
Wellesley is a community of high-achieving individuals who put a focus on their personal abilities and what those abilities allow them to accomplish. This quality is admirable, but it also can serve to make those of us with disabilities feel ashamed of our disabilities and the limitations they place on us. It is easy to think of disability as something that does not touch the majority of the community at Wellesley. To the average examiner, we appear to be a community of lively, young persons, constantly being teased by professors and staff about our abundance of energy. The truth is that well over 10 percent of students on campus have at least one disability, which means that you probably know someone who is trying to navigate a world built for able-bodied people.
This institution fails to treat disability as an identity that faces daily discrimination and micro-aggressions. This attitude neglects to acknowledge that disability is as much about social structures and attitudes, as it is about brain chemistry, mutated genetic code or infection of a virus. It is an identity with its own language, conceptual understandings and subcultures. Students with disabilities do not have their own advisor to help them cope with common feelings of isolation or low self-esteem. The subject continues to be treated as a purely physical problem and receives no mention in academic life on campus.
Wellesley should offer disability studies particularly given the compounding discriminatory effect of disability and gender. So I ask that as we move forward, the inclusion of disability studies in the curriculum be part of the ongoing dialogue about Wellesley’s future. It is hard not to wonder if the lack of academic discussion is another form of erasure of our presence on campus and our lived experiences.