“Academic Ableism” Author Interview–Part 1

by Kathryn Beaton on November 8, 2017

This University Press Week, we’re featuring an interview with Jay Timothy Dolmage. He’s an Associate Professor of English at the University of Waterloo and author of the forthcoming book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, which argues that inclusiveness allows for a better education for everyone. Today’s theme is “producing the books that matter,” and the larger theme of UP Week is #LookItUp: Knowledge Matters. We are proud to offer a large selection of disability studies books, and feel that they are essential to dispelling misconceptions.

Hang tight for Part 2 of the interview when the book releases in December!

 

You use the phrase “steep steps” throughout the book as a metaphor for how universities keep certain students out—and sometimes as a literal obstacle, too! Can you explain that a bit?

I am always searching for visual and spatial metaphors to try and explain things to myself and to others.  The contrast between ramps and steps on college campuses is one of those metaphors…When you walk around campuses, the steps really are steep and they are wide, and they are everywhere—and they aren’t really about mobility, they are architectural statements on the most important buildings. So they send a message…[of] schooling as a place to sort society, to decide who gets to go up to which step and who does not. Is this really how we want to think of education—as a place that solidifies and reinforces unequal privilege and unequal access?

The metaphor works, hopefully, because you can contrast the steps with ramps, which are functionally much better, they provide equal access, but when you see them on campuses, they are hidden around the back of buildings, they are temporary, they are an after-thought. And that says something very powerful too: disability or, more broadly, people who think differently, move differently, or who come from different backgrounds, the ramps are for them to come in the back door and get something less. My real goal would be for teachers and administrators to think of the work of higher education as being about building more ramps, tearing down more steps.

 

 

Academic Ableism draws on Margaret Price’s 2011 book Mad at School (also published by the University of Michigan Press), about mental illness in higher education. What were some points of hers that you agreed or disagreed with as you wrote your own book?

I really didn’t disagree with anything that Margaret wrote!  I have had a long line of students for whom that book, Mad at School, was what allowed them to be in school, or stay there, it was such a powerful message that what they were experiencing wasn’t unique to them, and that their way of thinking and being was valuable. I have given my copy of that book away—and had to buy a new one—at least ten times.

 

 

You write about how “hyper-heteronormative sexual acquisitiveness” is one way students measure one another when trying to fit in, and you tie this into rape culture’s pervasiveness in movies about college life and on actual campuses. What does your book suggest in terms of how students and educators can fight this?

OK, this is a tricky one. Part of what I am saying in that section is that when we look at how popular culture views the university, in particular through films like Old School or Animal House, education is always sexualized, and sexualized in a relatively straightforward way: college is where you go to party and have sex, and thus women are constructed as passive objects. But then this fits into a much bigger picture…the idea that universities have always had a eugenic function, bringing together, supposedly, the best “stock.” It is also about the traditional power imbalances on campus—it really wasn’t long ago that women weren’t allowed to study at all. My own school has an engineering building that until recently had basically zero women’s washrooms, because they never thought they would be needed. So we see rape culture reflected in these movies; and we also see sexism as central to the real schools we work at.

I’ll suggest one way we should not fight this: we should not fight this by foregrounding the rights of accused rapists, as Betsy DeVos, the new U.S Education Secretary has.  That can only have a chilling and silencing effect. But we should fight this by talking more about this culture—at my own school we hosted a rape culture teach-in, and it was tremendously well-attended.  It mattered to have Professors openly talking about this culture, naming it.  That’s a good first step. I also think it is essential to understand the historical links between eugenics, ableism, and rape culture; and practically, we need to link support systems that engage with disability and with sexual violence—rape culture has been a huge disabling force on college campuses.

 

 

In writing this book, you aimed to use “plain language” and make it appealing to readers outside of academia too. For people who aren’t in higher education, what are some steps they can take to combat ableism in their own workplaces and communities?

I truly believe that the college or university is so similar to other enterprises, especially other places where “knowledge work” happens. These types of workplaces are powerful incubators for ableism, whether they are tech startups, schools, large modern corporations, etc.—these places thrive as cultures where workers are afraid to admit to any form of weakness or distress, or any need for accommodation or adjustment, in part because of the economic and labour models they are built on (lots of contract labour, lack of supports and benefits, focus on immediate profit or cost-cutting over long-term investments) and in part because the ethic of the work is in fact ableist: it’s all about being very smart, very energetic, very social, and at the same time totally self-sufficient. You end up with monocultures: the same types of bodies and minds on the path to quick burnout.

I think the way to combat this is to look instead at the bigger, long-term picture. For any enterprise to thrive, there need to be career-long supports that allow workers to be productive over the long term. So the steps we can take to combat this form of ableism requires workers to organize and prioritize a different set of goals, that are more about keeping together a diverse group of thinkers over a longer term.

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