“Academic Ableism” Author Interview–Part 2

by Kathryn Beaton on December 15, 2017

Check out Part 2 of our interview with Jay Timothy Dolmage. He’s an Associate Professor of English at the University of Waterloo and author of the newly released book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, which argues that inclusiveness allows for a better education for everyone. We are proud to offer a large selection of disability studies books, and feel that they are essential to dispelling misconceptions.

Find Part 1 of the interview here.


You write about how, for many years, “disability has been constructed as the antithesis of higher education, often positioned as a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved.” How do you see your role in enacting change? 

Well, I think that a lot of the work of fighting this historical construction is actually really complicated.  The elitism of higher education is something that educators and students have really bought into, really invest in: it is a way of telling themselves they deserve to be in school, deserve the privileges that they have, and that what they research and study really matters.  These are all really important messages, and it’s hard to tell a Professor, or a student who is just beginning their studies, that these ways they build up their own egos are also wrapped up in ableism, wrapped up in these complicated histories of eugenics, and racism, sexism, and so on.  So there is this difficult and careful rhetorical work we need to do to even get people to consider ways to change the mindset around higher education. It isn’t that higher education is bad, it isn’t that students or teachers are bad, or even administrators; it’s just that everything we do is also connected to histories that are not at all about the fair distribution of opportunity.

The good thing is that a lot of students and teachers already understand this, and are working to fight academic ableism and to question the structures that create hierarchies within  higher ed. The book is designed to give them even more tools for this work; and it is designed to, hopefully, engage with educators and students who want to deny these disparities as well, or for whom admitting these realities to themselves is difficult.


Making a school accessible takes much more than just following a checklist, you write. Keeping in mind all of the structural limitations, how can early-career educators take steps to make their classrooms welcoming places? What about late-career educators who want to re-examine how they teach?

I think this is one of those tricky rhetorical challenges I mentioned in my answer to the first question.  How do you get experienced teachers to change, or new teachers to take risks?  Changing the status quo of a very conservative place like a university is really hard.  One of my strategies is to try and give teachers a lot of different places to start—and to suggest that all they need to do is to try a “ramp” in their classroom, that’s where it begins.  As an accompaniment to the book, there is a huge, long list of these places to start.


You completed degrees in both the United States and Canada, and have taught in both countries too. What differences have you noticed in Americans’ versus Canadians’ attitudes towards disabilities?

I actually think that in the ways that higher education is set up, to basically deny the presence of disability at every turn, or to minimally and temporarily accommodate it —and to only do that minimal and temporary accommodating—the two countries are shockingly similar. The big difference has been the Americans with Disabilities Act.  But for every way that the ADA may have made things move differently or more quickly in the US, it has also created other problems and complicated dodges.  And in Canada, provincial disability acts are having similar mixed results. But higher education is also largely a public and private enterprise in the US, and this gives it a different character than in Canada, where higher education is mainly public. This leads to the public looking to higher education as a shared responsibility in Canada a bit more, though this hasn’t led to more funding! I think in the States, you are more likely to have a public sense of the elitism of higher education, whereas in Canada it is seen as more of a social program that continues K-12 education.

One interesting trend that gets touched on a bit in the book is that public funding for higher ed. in the States has been linked to retention and student success; this doesn’t happen in Canada yet—Canadian schools get funding based on how many students they have, not really based on how the students do.  But that funding model looks like it might be changing.  So we will have to see if that leads Canadian schools to actually do more to support students to succeed, which would require restructuring how schools work—or if, as we’ve seen in the States, it simply leads schools to become more ableist and exclusive by trying not to admit any students who might struggle, and refusing to change how we educate. I think that will be a real test.


As an English professor, do you have any favorite fiction, memoir, and/or poetry recommendations for people interested in disability studies?

For sure. There is some terrific fiction that one could read as an accompaniment to this book. The first thing I’d suggest is actually a film, a documentary called Deej, about one young man’s path through high school and into University. I’d also suggest the novel Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum, which really captures the ways that K-12 education feeds into the ableism of higher ed. Perhaps the one book I’d most recommend, and not just because it happens to be a UM Press book, would be Simi Linton’s My Body Politic—a terrific memoir that also tells the story of the creation of the disability rights movement.

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