A Critique Of Ableism

Reflecting on her experience working as a college administrator, June Thunderstorm questions diagnoses of ADHD, PTSD, and various allergies and phobias “that heavily credentialed people devise to shirk routine labor.” She scoffs that “there must have been at least six empathy-inducing acronyms for writing is hard, so I refresh my Facebook page all day instead“:

[N]ow, with ten years of graduate school under my belt, it’s become my job to guess how to grade papers that come with special slips marked “dyslexia”; those slips mean, basically, that I’m not supposed to judge the writing on the basis of syntax, grammar, or coherence. Of course, the dyslexic papers are always diverse—some have syntactic mix-ups that are clearly symptomatic of the disorder, some do not, some appear simply to be bad papers written by someone who did not read the book, and some are as good as the best papers in the non-dyslexic category. The non-dyslexic category involves a similar spread—a certain proportion have the syntactic mishaps that are the classic signature of dyslexia, most do not, some are terribly bad, and some are great.

What divides students with the special slip from everyone else is not always or only dyslexia.

Some students work the system—i.e., have parents who bestow on them a sense of entitlement and access to expensive special health services that it doesn’t even occur to ordinary people to ask for. Disability then turns into class power misrecognized. The rebranding of social and cultural capital via a class-encoded discourse of health allows the privileged student to get ahead with even less merit than before. After all, it is only when pain is the exception rather than the rule that it is noticed; only those who can imagine escaping their pain bother to complain about it, and only those who know the system can have the strength to manipulate it. …

You see, the assumption behind efforts to eradicate “ableism” seems to be that only some people—people with recognized disabilities, and not, for example, workers routinely in harm’s way—deserve protection from dust, paint, and lifting boxes. Only some people don’t like seeing themselves bleed. Only some people are damaged by inhaling trisodium phosphate. And only some people should get to have their papers graded easy.

Update from a reader:

As Disability Services Coordinator at a small regional university, I have about 120 students registered with my office for some form of disability accommodation, at an institution of about 4,000 students. That ratio is pretty static across the profession. About half of the registered students attest to some form of concentration disorder such as ADD, ADHD, or certain types of anxiety with varying triggers. Common accommodations for students who provide appropriate documentation include extended time testing, and a provision that ensures they can do their homework, quizzes, and tests in a quiet and distraction-free environment outside of the traditional classroom.

The accommodations they receive are emphatically NOT easier grading or anything of the sort, as June Thunderstorm seems to imply. If these students are receiving accommodations that include a wholly different grading scale in the environment of postsecondary education, those are unreasonable accommodations that fundamentally alter the academic rigor of the instruction and evaluation. No law, anywhere, requires relaxed academic standards for students with disabilities.

Disability accommodation is about creating access and opportunity, not about making things easier overall.