Disability isn’t a barrier, discrimination is (Part 2)

One of the major indications of the lack of nuanced understanding of disability on campus is the frequent inaccessibility of student organizations. I know this is going to sound controversial and desperate to some of you since I’m a first-year, but I’m not here to make you hate your orgs. I’m here to show you how they inherently exclude certain groups of people—and not based on people’s hypothetical contribution to the group, but because of entry processes that are often ableist.  

A quick note before I get into this: You have probably seen on every campus event poster that the Office of Campus Activities and Student Events is to be contacted for accommodations. Unfortunately, there is no information on the office’s website about what the process is to get those accommodations. Therefore, for disabled students to be accommodated at events, we must first spend energy learning this new process and then calling strangers and asking for space to be made for us. Clearly, this is time-consuming and draining, even for those without symptoms of fatigue (and yes, we are going to need accommodations at nearly every event, so this process will have to be repeated multiple times a week). 

Many orgs that require auditions have ambiguous entry processes. I can imagine that from the members’ perspective, this ambiguity allows them to see the “true” personalities of auditionees. I’d like to counter this notion and point out that the likelihood of getting to know anyone in a matter of 15 minutes is low, especially if you weed out neurodivergent folks by creating an environment that is not conducive to their success. For many with autism, ADHD and anxiety, for instance, unpredictable social environments are hellish. Many auditions, but specifically those for comedy organizations, also require understanding purposefully obtuse social cues, such as “draw a dream you had,” “choose a stripper name” or “what makes you laugh?” When I read questions like those, I know there is a specific type of answer that the org is looking for, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be literal or “quirky” or funny; I don’t know how hard I’m supposed to think about it, and I certainly don’t know how my answers to a Google Form filled out in a few minutes in a squeaky hallway in Rocky are supposed to give anyone an idea of my ability to write comedy sketches. Moreover, when I go into an audition not knowing what the org is looking for, I don’t know what social cues to present—and don’t say I shouldn’t present cues, because everyone does all the time. Neurotypicals just don’t have to do it consciously. The first impression I’ll always give is impulsive, uncontrolled and nervous precisely because of my disabilities. In one of these auditions (which, for comedy, are done in a massive five-hour time block divined by the devil for the chronically ill) I was asked to tell them a story, something I can’t do (well) on the spot because I have an inconsistent memory. I want to be clear that this was not an improv group, but a group that pre-writes all of its sets. So those members never saw how I would contribute to their group because my disability was an easy way to narrow the pool of auditionees. I left feeling positive I never had a chance. I don’t think I necessarily would have made it if I had been able to prepare, but I wouldn’t have felt like I never could, because no matter how funny I was or how much I practiced or how many years I auditioned, I would never pass the test of being neurotypical. I couldn’t have asked for accommodations like it always says to do on posters because I had no idea what I was going to be asked to do. I’ll never be able to have my “vibey self” balance out my sensory sensitivity, anxiety and memory problems because I can’t hide my disability well enough to fit in any space here at Vassar.

When I tell people this story, they remind me that everyone has trouble adjusting, and in turn I remind them that I’m adjusting wonderfully; it’s the Vassar community that can’t adapt to having disabled students. My Vassar Bubble burst because I realized that there is no way I can adjust enough to be what Vassar wants—an able-minded and -bodied person, or at the very least, a disabled person who doesn’t complain. And as much as I have tried to forget a dean dismissing my request for subtitles or being told that all physical limitations are temporary in my dance class or getting asked if I’ve tried a checklist in a meeting reviewing the accommodations for my forgetfulness, I am too tired already to carry these experiences by myself. I am too aware that I have it good because I’ve received any treatment at all. I am too close, always, to blaming myself when I can’t just “suck it up” and “work harder.” It is too much.

There is so much more to say than the topics I have covered here. I haven’t talked enough about physical disabilities or smaller changes that would make daily life infinitely easier. I’ve only mentioned the big issues that have impacted me specifically. I haven’t thanked the people here who have given me so much already and kept me safe and sane or told you the solutions: education, community, listening to disabled students. Partially, this is because I don’t have all these answers, but it’s also because I can’t do this alone. I don’t want to have to beg in the school paper for space to be made for me at an institution I deserve to thrive at. I’m asking you to listen now because I’m tired of telling these stories, because I hate reading legislation but I interpreted the ADA as best I could to protect myself and my community. I’m asking you to listen because I’m tired of not being heard.  

2 Comments

  1. Hi Grace,

    I’m a senior at Vassar and I empathize so much with what you’re going through, as I too deal with many of the same diagnoses. I want to say that what I’ve learned is that no one is going to advocate better for you than yourself. I know that sucks to hear, and I wish it were different, but advocating for myself is the one thing that has gotten me through college without fail. Many of the people and resources available to help us aren’t (nor can they be) tailored to our exact needs, and it’s so frustrating, but that’s why you have to build a system that works for you. You know your needs (if you don’t, you’ll learn, which is okay, it’s a process), and then be able to tell the right people what you need from them, most times skipping the AEO and formalities entirely.

    For the comedy auditions, or any other club activity, maybe next time you can reach out to the president of the club and explain that you have a disability (with or without disclosing what that disability is, that’s up to you) that makes it hard or impossible to do XYZ, and that you would benefit from XYZ in order to make the audition process accessible to you. If they give you pushback, then go to the AEO.

    I feel your pain and frustration and I wish there were some way that I could help you. There will be people who you go to for help, who should be able to help you, but don’t. When that happens, it makes me feel alone in my struggles and that the world doesn’t care about people like us, but we care about people like us, we’re a community, and that’s how we’ll get by for now, I suppose.

    Much love,
    Anon

  2. As someone who has known Vassar College employees outside
    of work, I can honestly say the school is not doing enough to
    understand what dyslexia is or how to treat it. What is shameful
    is that the administration tries very hard to say it’s doing things,
    but isn’t. About two years ago, it was known that one supervisor
    in particular, would call a worker into her office, close the door,
    and then proceed to yell at the top of her lungs, that the worker
    “was stupid” and, “what is wrong with you?” But he wasn’t either
    of those as he had an IQ of over 140. What, “he did have,” is
    dyslexia, and despite explaining that, the putdowns continued.
    This administrator remains on staff. So, in a nutshell, “the rot
    starts from the top.”

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