The introduction to Jay Timothy Dolmage’s Academic Ableism is a stark reminder of the real history of anti-disabled social Darwinist ideology and its origins in the early 20th century North American university’s academic eugenics movements. Dolmage details in brief not only how universities have ignored or tokenized their students and faculty with disabilities, but also systematically assisted in my marginalization and attempted eradication of those same populations. While things have certainly changed, Academic Ableism begins with a premise towards being skeptical of disability and access initiatives as anything more than compliance. The introduction sets up the discussion about disability well. It positions American universities as both purveyors and perpetuators of marginalization for people with disabilities. Several key factors of Dolmage’s view regarding disability and the methodology through which he will be analyzing it are laid out early in the introduction.
Overall, the introduction does a good job of setting up the study of disability and the academy’s relationship to it. Dolmage points out some key issues of intersection that occur between universities and disable people with other non-hegemonic qualities like race, gender, sexuality, as well as others. Having an intersectional approach to disability is important when addressing systemic issues, because people with disabilities can come from every race, every gender, with every sexuality and with every religious background. This kind of recognition places this book in conversation with many different perspectives on diverse populations among people with disabilities. This is especially important when talking about eugenics, as all of the qualities stated above have at times been separate criteria for eugenics.
In this chapter, Dolmage uses the spatial metaphor of the retrofit as his next example. The chapter opens by discussing the failure of the American Disabilities Act (ADA). He discusses the various ways that the ADA sometimes provides fixes for issues that do not really make things easier for people with disabilities, one example being a ramp that was built to help someone enter public houses. The ramp looks pretty ridiculous and has 10 levels to it. Rather than trying to find the best solution, the builders designed something that makes it much harder to use. The ramp was supposed to be built to help the girl who lived there access her house, but in reality it makes it very time consuming to even try to enter.
One line that resonated with me was: “Disability also can’t be seen as something frozen in time and frozen in othered bodies—it has to be embraced as an always-everywhere, as a material but always changing reality” (73).
Essentially, this chapter questions the rhetoric of accommodations and the way the system is currently set up to make the student have to seek help rather than the system being originally built to accommodate people with a range of disabilities.
In this chapter, Dolmage uses the metaphor of space to discuss academic ableism in the university. He argues that:
“if rhetoric is the circulation of discourse through the body, then spaces and institutions cannot be disconnected from the bodies within them, the bodies they selectively exclude, and the bodies that actively intervene to reshape them” (44).
The first space he examines are the “steep steps.” He discusses how these steps are both a metaphor for the elitism of universities and a reality in many of the physical structures of campuses. The steps, along with the symbol of gate, set the university apart from the rest of the world. He goes on to talk about the way we construct what disability means and how the term has negative connotations.
I found it really disturbing to think about how to a certain extent eugenicist principles continue in universities today. He gives the example of how the top schools tend to pool from the same top 20% of students who in turn marry each other being a continuation of these principles. I had certainly never made that connection myself.
The introduction to “Academic Ableism” by Jay Dolmage opens with an example of a steep set of stairs. The stairs are seen as a part of the university’s identity, and they serve as a barrier to those who might try to enter. Dolmage then discusses the history of asylums in North America, focusing on how universities have a similar way of isolating people from society at large. While asylums kept the “lowest” of individuals, universities chose only the “best” to enter its gates.
I found the history he gave on the history of eugenics and how it changed academia both fascinating and disturbing. While I was aware there was a large movement in the early 1900s, I did not know that it has weaseled its way into the university curriculum to such a degree.
Following the section on Eugenics, Dolmage discusses the lack of funding for students and faculty with disabilities as well as the lack of representation of faculty with disabilities.
Some of the discussion and space and disability made me reflect on the construction going on in our own library to make the buildings more accessible. The main library itself is also framed by those high steps.