Disabilities expert urges greater openness on campus

by Sam Pianello

To many at Vassar, constructive discussion on issues of disabilities and its social implica­tions is lacking. On Nov. 12, however, the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity’s 14th annual Steven ’71 and Susan Hirsch Disability Awareness Lecture sought to challenge this trend.

This year’s speaker was Associate Professor of English at Spelman College Margaret Price. According to Director of the Accessibility and Educational Opportunity Office MaryJo Cavana­ugh, Price was chosen to give this year’s lecture for her expertise and activism in the field of dis­abilities research. “Price’s scholarship, research— and lived experience as an individual with mental disabilities—provide an important foundation to how we discuss disability and access for both students and faculty in higher education,” Cava­naugh wrote in an emailed statement. “We want­ed her presence to serve as a catalyst for campus conversation around mental health, wellness and disability and its impact on the classroom.”

At her talk at Vassar, Price detailed the effects of a lack of discussion about disability on college campuses, particularly mental disabilities. As As­sociate Professor of English Leslie Dunn briefed, “Disability is too often the missing term in cam­pus conversations about diversity and inclusion.” Price opened by reflecting on the fact that mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities are on a dra­matic rise on college campuses. “A huge percent of college students with psychiatric disorders drop out of college,” Price said, with some stud­ies reporting a record of 86 percent. In addition, she noted that large-scale studies on college cam­puses tend to separate mental illness from cog­nitive disorders, meaning that the actual rates of distress, help-seeking and dropping out are likely higher than studies conclude.

In response to these results, Price argued that mental health is a question of urgent interest to everyone invested in higher education. “I encour­age us to move away from the desire for a quick fix…and instead to think about what the experi­ence of mental disability as a member of the aca­demic community really entails,” she stated.

Price focuses her current research on faculty and has conducted survey studies with various faculty members across the country who have a wide range of disabilities. She described that when she and her colleagues asked whether par­ticipants had requested accommodations for their mental disabilities, 87 percent of respondents had not. When they were asked why in the interview study, many participants answered that they did not need them or were unaware that they were available. When posed with an open-ended re­sponse, one participant wrote, “One word— STIGMA.” Another comment elaborated: “I do not think that the risk of serious reprisal is high, but I have seen a colleague with a serious mental health issue subjected to constant gossip, orig­inating with administrators, and I believe such would seriously damage my ability to work.”

After conducting these interviews, Price and her associates noticed patterns concerning all of the study’s participants. One covered a lack of specialized knowledge. “Almost all the faculty [we] have interviewed report that there is a gap in knowledge about disability in their workplaces,” she explained. People may learn how to interact with those with mental disabilities without mak­ing them feel uncomfortable, but that knowledge only comes after the person gets to know the oth­er. Price remarked, “In other words, in addition to teaching their classes and doing all their work, [diagnosed faculty] are also teaching everyone around them how to work with/in the parame­ters of their everyday disabled selves. This is, as you can imagine, a highly complex endeavor, and takes a lot of energy.”

Price also voiced concerns for the environ­ment currently present in academic spaces. Her interviewees described very unwelcoming atmo­spheres towards disabled students and faculty in their schools. For example, a non-tenure-track faculty member did not seek accommodations for fear of having her contract revoked. In addition, Price asked a participant whether she talks about her disabilities at work. The participant replied, “There’s not a chance in hell.” Another participant explained her dilemma: “This school isn’t great about accommodations.” Language also contrib­uted to this participant’s sense of unwelcome isolation; as Price said, “Among the language [the participant] recalled was a search committee’s use of the R-word during [her] interview.”

Much of what Price said resonated with those who attended, as did the lecture’s welcoming at­mosphere. Cece Babbitt ’19, who attended the talk, commented, “She made the lecture accessible and…fostered an environment where individuals were not intimidated by the space and able to be comfortable while listening to the lecture.”

Responses such as these may spur the types of conversations both Cavanaugh and Price strive for. Cavanaugh states, “Often people immediately think of disability as physical or sensory in nature when in fact the invisible or more hidden disabil­ities may have a greater impact on a student’s ex­perience at college in and out of the classroom.” The Hirsch Disability Awareness Lecture is meant to reveal the truth behind such misinfor­mation. “These conversations really have to take place in specific local contexts and there has to be a will to have the conversations as well as a space for them,” Price said.

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