05 February 2013

Challenging Ableism (at Georgetown and elsewhere)

Trigger Warning: Direct quotes of derails, and mention of rape.


Last night, I posted a status update to Facebook about the question that I asked Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia during the annual Black House Dinner. I had asked President DeGioia what Georgetown is actually going to do about the fact that we have a fundamentally hostile environment for disabled students (and others) at this university, as evidenced by the fact that disabled students so frequently leave the university and transfer elsewhere. I quoted a friend of mine who asked me once how I can even survive at this school as a disabled person. (That friend's pseudonym is Keegan Lehrer in my article in the Winter 2013 Georgetown Independent.) I asked what Georgetown will do to cultivate a culture of inclusion for disabled students, and address the unique position of disabled students of color.

Among the many comments on this status update were two from an older acquaintance of mine, who is a Georgetown alumn and whom I've known for several years. I started to write this response to those comments on the Facebook thread itself, but quickly realized that my response would be long enough to monopolize the thread and draw attention from the rest of the conversation happening therein. Instead, I'm going to publish my response and quoted excerpts of those comments (without the acquaintance's name or personally identifiable information from the comments) here.

I am profoundly disappointed in the response that this individual had to my status update.

The other person wrote, "[You] wear a very big chip on your shoulder and being confrontational to so many people as you are regularly on FB does not suit you."

I'm sorry; I don't see any "chips" on my shoulder, metaphorical or otherwise, unless you count serious examination of multiple hierarchies of oppression and systematic disenfranchisement of millions of people of their rights and erasure of their existence as a "chip" on my shoulder. I'd hope people could see these intersecting societal problems as more than "chips" on someone's shoulder when someone decides that it's important to examine and deconstruct them.

I don't choose to be "confrontational" because I like to upset people simply for the sake of upsetting people. There's a quote that floats around quite a bit, and it says, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." It's also unfair to use the term "confrontational" as you have to clearly connote that I simply like being argumentative for its own sake, when that's patently untrue. I generally try to avoid confrontation because it makes me incredibly anxious. So when I do conflict with someone, it's because they've said or done something egregiously wrong, and I cannot in good conscience remain silent or decline to call it out.

If someone says something oppressive (whether racist, sexist, ableist, or otherwise), I am morally obligated to speak against it. Silence on the part of bystanders is complicity in the oppression. We teach children that when they witness bullying, silence is allowing the bullies to get away with it. The same principle very much applies to adults. Would you rather I remain silent and "polite" in the face of injustice simply to avoid being seen as "confrontational?"

The other person wrote, "The invitation to dinner is one that should be respectfully received and voicing your concern for disabled students is healthy but not good form at a special dinner."

President DeGioia specifically invited comments and questions related to the university. There was actually nothing "inappropriate" about the context. I have been invited to several of these dinners, and he has yet to stop inviting me. I ask critical questions every time.

The other person wrote, "You are very privileged to attend and being constantly bitter and not open to the many great things about the university is tainting your experience. It is what you choose to make it and you are always choosing to feel wronged. I witness it over and over again. Kindly step back and evaluate this amazing opportunity and embrace the learning, culture and special environment for what it is. It's your reaction to things that determine the outcome. Perhaps you should be open to enjoying more experienced [sic]."

Do you think I take some kind of perverse, masochistic pleasure out of experiencing hatred, hostility, and discrimination? No one with any self-respect would ever voluntarily choose to experience exclusion, silencing, erasure, discrimination, prejudice, or hostility.

Would you rather I be happy every time someone contributes to an environment so hostile that multiply-marginalized students report significantly higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression? That these students are made to feel so unwelcome, unaccepted, and excluded from the community that they choose to forego the educational opportunities and leave for the sake of preserving their own mental and emotional health? Would you rather I be happy when professors attack and belittle students, or when administrators dismiss reasonable requests with not-so-subtle attacks on students' personal character?

I have had many positive and wonderful experiences at Georgetown, and I am immensely grateful for those opportunities and experiences, and for the many amazing people whom I've met here. But to ignore all of the actual, grievous wrongs that do occur at this university for the sake of appearing "more happy" would be a grave disservice not merely to myself or to those who have been most directly impacted by a culture of ableism, but also to the entire university.

My reaction to intersecting oppressions, which is one of disappointment, anger, and frustration, and which ought to be the natural and normal reaction to injustice, inequality, and bigotry, is not "tainting my experience." The fact that the members of the university community have largely inculcated a culture in which flagrant bias, blatant discrimination, and oppressive structures can thrive with impunity -- that is tainting my experience, as it should.

I am open to hearing from student leaders, faculty, staff, and the administration collectively what collaborative and proactive measures Georgetown can actually implement to combat the oppressive culture that exists now and to actively work toward creating a culture of inclusion for everyone. That would benefit every member of the university community. There are diversity-related initiatives and dialogues that occur on this campus, but cloistered discussions, closed-door proceedings, and bureaucratic delays pose significant barriers to any efforts to effect meaningful and permanent change.

A friend of mine at the university who was an undergraduate student until recently said that xe had been part of the Different Dialogue on Gender program last semester. What was intended to be a critical examination of gender and its constructions, and potentially explore the topics of sexism, cissexism, and gender binarism, was actually moderated by a facilitator who himself knew little to nothing about any of these topics, and who did not appropriately address other students who expressed oppressive ideas. Instead of being a safe space for critical dialogue and education, this session fostered enough hostility where another friend who was participating stopped attending.

When I interviewed multiple students (undergraduate and graduate) and a staff member for my feature article in the Georgetown Independent earlier this month, one of the most salient themes that emerged in their responses, particularly of those with invisible or hidden disabilities, was a broad reticence to disclose or identify as disabled. The best parallel that I can provide is to the Queer community. At universities that provide a welcoming community for Queer members of the university community, the likelihood that those who have been previously closeted will feel comfortable about disclosing and identifying as some form of Queer will be higher than at a university with a hostile environment for Queer students. The fact that the vast majority of my interviewees would only agree to answer questions if I used pseudonyms and took other measures to disguise their identities speaks strongly to the fact that Georgetown has indeed created a hostile environment for the disabled.

Izzi Angel, who has bipolar, is quoted in my article as saying, “At this point I don’t really expect anyone [at Georgetown] not to be ableist. It’s hard not to be cynical to the point of [being] somewhat misanthropic.” The horror stories that Keegan told me in my long interview with him are appalling examples of egregious hatred against disabled students -- for being Blind, Autistic, in a wheelchair, Deaf, or any host of other disability categories.

I can't imagine a more appropriate reaction to this than one of disappointment, bitterness, frustration, and anger.

The other person wrote, "I do believe strongly that how you react to events creates your experience and I'd like to give pause to Lydia who I've been following in FB for quite sometime to reconsider and stop and think about how she comes across to the world. Alienating people does not affect change nearly as effectively as building bridges and diplomacy. I support strong voices. But she loses credibility with constant complaints on virtually everything."

There are several things that need be said in response to this. Firstly, I know how I "come across to the world," and it's highly subjective. I have been accused of everything under the sun, from being a right-wing extremist, to being far too passive and civil to the point of complicity, to being hateful and full of nothing but vitriol, to being some kind of supremacist, and pretty much everything else imaginable. People can say whatever they like, but it will not change the truth. In any case, if I were to spend all of my time worrying about whether I'm coming across as "respectable" and "acceptable" by everyone in the world, and whether I could possibly even slightly offend someone, would prove severely detrimental to the effectiveness of any of my work.

Furthermore, if the people whom I am supposedly alienating are intractably stubborn in their clinging to oppressive beliefs and incorrigible in examining how their actions and words can and do contribute to hostile environments that justify inexcusable crimes against any number of marginalized people, then frankly, I don't care too much. It is not my job to educate every person I meet, nor is everyone I meet going to be willing or ready to be educated.

Thirdly, the idea of diplomacy and building bridges implies that two people who are otherwise equal or peers of each other (or two groups of people, perhaps) are engaging in critical discussion. Those dynamics do not accurately depict existing power structures. When one group of people is privileged over another group of people, there literally cannot be such discussions, because all discourse is held within the context of those power structures. I literally cannot sit at the same table as non-disabled people because they have power and privilege that I do not.

As I mentioned in another recent post on this blog, calls from those in privileged positions relative to mine (i.e. nondisabled people speaking to disabled people) for civility on my part are frequently accompanied with infantilizing and paternalistic chiding, as well as a good dose of hypocrisy when people who are much older and thereotically more "mature" than I am (if you buy into those ageist presuppositions) freely engage in attacking me, belittling me, screaming at me, and all manner of non-civil discourse without any repercussions whatsoever, all while claiming that I cannot and will not be taken seriously (ever) if I continue to be "confrontational" and "alienate" people.

Finally, to address the accusation that my primary mode of discourse is "constant complaints on virtually everything," let me pose a question. Would you rather I say nothing every time something terrible happens? I would hope not, particularly not in the age of "talk about your feelings." Additionally, my Facebook page is (semi) private space, where my friends and other people in my broader social circles can interact and share our feelings and ventings when things happen that are upsetting. Suggesting that I shouldn't allow myself such a space in which to air frustrations for fear of losing my credibility is actually rather absurd. As a last note on this segment, it's incredibly demeaning and belittling to suggest that my thoughts and feelings, let alone my critical analyses of oppressive incidents, are simply "complaints" akin to those of a fifth grader not wanting to do an extra set of math problems or a teenager whose makeup is running in the rain. I would hope that my criticisms would not be subject to this kind of de-legitimization.

The other person wrote, "So please know I write this post hoping Lydia can be open to seeing things with a bit more tolerance and acceptance herself since that is what she is demanding of the world."

Tolerance is a word that I loathe. It implies that something that is inherently or generally unwanted, unaccepted, or undesired should be allowed to exist despite those negative attributes or perspectives toward it. I wouldn't wish tolerance on or for anyone.

And regarding acceptance -- suppose you were to suggest I become more accepting of racist organizations, like the modern Ku Klux Klan, or sexist speakers, like the politician who wants to pass legislation forcing women to give birth to their rapists' children, or heterosexist people, like those who murdered Matthew Shepard? It would be outrageous and fundamentally outside the paradigm of things that ought to be acceptable. Why should it not be so when you suggest I become more accepting of ableism, when this type of oppression leads directly to the pervasive abuse, torture, and murder of disabled people across the globe?


  1. If we're supposed to believe that "how you react to events creates your experience", then wouldn't that also apply to those who are getting so bent out of shape over your "complaining"?

  2. I think these two derailing methods apply to the original FB posts you're responding to:

    http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/resources/mirror-derailing-for-dummies/#sensitive and the one after it.

  3. Keep it up, Lydia. It's easy for people to blame you because the things you say ring true enough to make them uncomfortable. It sucks that acceptance of disability is such a radical idea to most people.


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