Individuals with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the United States. Yet ableism, the discrimination against people with disabilities, is not perceived to be as grave an issue as other forms of discrimination like racism, sexism and classism. Because we live in an ableist society in which able-bodied and neurotypical individuals are the norm, individuals with disabilities are often viewed as simply an error. This, however, is a myopic view of ability. Although the word “disability” suggests an inability, disabilities offer unique perspectives and approaches that can enrich discussion and foster progress. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein all succeeded in spite of their disabilities. Ableism needs to be recognized as a serious issue, on campus and worldwide.
While many of us take our able body and neurotypicality for granted, ability is a fluid form of identity. Many disabilities are acquired through injury, illness or age. Concussions are an example of a prevalent form of temporary disability. Furthermore, some traumatic brain injuries can result in permanent cognitive deficits. This impairment may create significant limitations for an individual who could be considered to have a disability under the law; this does not mean, however, that people with disabilities needs to be “cured.” Individuals with diabilities simply need to learn how to approach things in a slightly different way. Society must also be understanding and accommodating of these differences.
Andover prides itself on its diverse student body. The school’s Statement of Purpose says, “The Academy is committed to establishing a community that encourages people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to understand and respect one another and to be sensitive to differences of gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation.” Our Office of Community and Multicultural Development offers a similar statement, which also includes religion and geographical origin. Neither, however, mention ability as a form of identity and diversity.
Last spring, I conducted a study in my Math 630 (Applied Statistics) class to evaluate disability awareness at Andover. Sixty students and teachers were asked to respond “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Neutral,” “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree” to the following statement: “I am aware of students with disabilities at Phillips Academy.” While 78 percent of teachers strongly agreed or agreed, only 50 percent of students strongly agreed or agreed. Furthermore, 12 percent of teachers and 24 percent of students disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Too many members of this “intentionally diverse” community are unaware that roughly 70 students — nearly 6 percent of the student body — have disclosed disabilities on campus, said Pat Davison, Coordinator of Student Disability Services.
Fortunately, Andover has already begun to take early steps towards the celebration of differently-abled individuals. Disability Rights, Education, Activism and Mentoring (DREAM) on campus unites groups of different ability and promotes understanding and tolerance. In addition, programming such as the “No Shame in the Name: Celebration of Disabilities” weekend helps raise awareness of disabilities throughout the Andover community. Forums can provide education and also show the Andover community that students with disabilities can appear neurotypical and able-bodied. Hopefully, after further discussion, students will learn that disabilities are not to be pitied. Rather, they should be celebrated as differences that add value to our community.
_Carrie Ingerman is a Senior from Baton Rouge, LA._