29 September 2014

This is What the Empty Room Means

Today, the Georgetown University Center for Student Engagement (formerly known as the Center for Student Programs) hosted a Lunch & Learn training session aimed at student organization leadership. The goal of these trainings is to provide student leaders with knowledge and skills to assist them in running a student organization. Topics could range from strategies for bringing in outside speakers to budgeting for programs or partnering with other student groups. Today's training was to be on accessible and inclusive event planning.

About a month ago, CSE asked if I would be willing to present during a training on accessibility in event planning. I said yes, enthusiastically yes. The outline for the event included an introduction from CSE, a presentation from our disability support services office on Georgetown's policies for accommodation requests, and a presentation from me about the importance of accessibility and inclusion, as well as an overview of the great diversity of possible alterations and accommodations that planners might consider when developing an activity or program.

I arrived on campus today to find the CSE person and the disability services person sitting at one table of eight arranged to form a large square. From the other end of the table, I could smell the fresh pizza in three boxes beside three crates of different types of soda. The tables were clean and polished, so white and bright they made a stark contrast with the muted hardwood floor. The room could easily hold over 100 people, and around 30 or 40 at the tables in the arrangement we had.

But there was no one there. Not one student organization sent even a single representative to attend the training. CSE had received no RSVPs in advance (though they weren't required), and there were absolutely no attendees trickling in even as the clock turned past 12:30.

Photo: Me wearing a white button-down dress shirt and khakis, standing alone inside the Herman Meeting Room with several tables and chairs inside the Healy Family Student Center.

The room was vast and I was small. I was alone in an empty room.

Nothing demonstrates more clearly the utter disregard that disabled people face every day at Georgetown than this. That of literally hundreds of student organizations with hundreds (possibly even creeping into the low thousands) of students involved on their boards or other leadership positions, not even one person deemed it worth their while to learn about access and inclusion.

Of course I recognize that there are many legitimate reasons that people can't attend midday trainings. They have work; they have classes; they have prior obligations; something comes up at the last minute; they didn't know about the specific event. But even if you make the generous assumption that 75% of all students involved in leadership with some or another club would have been unable to attend for some such reason, let's say the remaining 25% could have come and either knew about it or could have been told by someone else in their club's leadership about it. And no one came. How plausible is it that an event run by CSE, the administrative office responsible for oversight of all student organizations, is somehow off the radar of every single club on campus? That every single student involved in any leadership position whatsoever is simultaneously unavailable to attend a one-hour training?

It's not deliberate malice or cold contempt. It's casual indifference.

It takes very little to drive home just how little we matter in the grand scheme of things. And this is what the empty room means. The empty room means that our existence continues to be largely unacknowledged. The empty room means that our ability to participate fully in campus life isn't worth anyone's time. The empty room means that when we talk about improving conditions for disabled people, it's little more than lip service. The empty room means that no one cared enough to figure out how to go or send someone else in their stead. The empty room means that we don't matter. The empty room means another reminder of that fact, clawing into our consciences until we can't forget it for even one second, one brief slip of time.

Georgetown never fails to disappoint me. I attend an elite educational institution that has literally no excuse whatsoever to perpetuate inaccessible environments. Yet for all the talk of cura personalis, community in diversity, being men and women for others ... we continually fail to show even the most minimal concern for the wellbeing or meaningful inclusion of a particularly invisible community on the margins of campus life. The empty room means that the road ahead will be tortuous and long, that my work will never be done, that an entire collective of seven thousand-odd students, and thousands more faculty and staff, every one of us, remain complicit in this complicated system of ableism.

The empty room means that our fight is less against willful hate and more against the easy ignorance cloaked in the privilege of never having to live a disabled experience -- the privilege of never being guilted and shamed into going to an event that you lost the spoons for but had requested an interpreter for beforehand -- the privilege of never having to decide days in advance whether you will go to an event or not -- the privilege of never having to wonder whether you'll be able to access the handouts, presentation slides, or speech of the presenter -- the privilege of not worrying whether other attendees' perfumed products will induce an allergic reaction, meltdown, or physical illness -- the privilege of not sitting on edge in case something triggers a seizure -- the privilege of not thinking about whether something will surprise you by triggering a panic, anxiety, or PTSD attack -- the privilege of not having to think about whether you can even get into the fucking building -- the privilege of being able to go to any event you like, anywhere, with little difficulty or inconvenience except perhaps finding parking --

The empty room means that this state of affairs, a state of affairs in which our completely avoidable and unnecessary yet routine exclusion from programming on campus is simply ordinary.

Author's edit: Since 2012, I have been working in various ways to advance disability justice at Georgetown. I formed a committee of students advocating for the creation of a Disability Cultural Center. I am the first person ever to serve in GUSA (our student government) doing work on disability within the diversity section, and am currently serving a second consecutive term in that role. I have organized several events on different disability rights topics. I'm collaborating with faculty who are proposing creation of a Disability Studies minor. I am agitating all the time for better physical accessibility and accommodations policies for students with disabilities. I've interviewed dozens of people with connections to the university, past and present, on their experiences while disabled. Back in January 2014, I organized a conversation under hashtag #BDGU (Being Disabled at Georgetown University) in the footsteps of other such conversations on experiences of different racialized groups on elite college campuses.

I'm currently organizing a Lecture & Performance Series on Disability Justice. The first event was September 23, when Kassiane Sibley came to campus to discuss abuse of disabled people by caregivers/family members. The next event is October 21 and 22, with Leroy Moore from Krip Hop Nation and Sins Invalid, performing and speaking on police brutality against disabled people, especially disabled people of color.

So there has been progress, just very incremental and largely invisible to the larger community.

04 September 2014

Letter to a Stranger

Hello. You may or may not ever read this letter, but as much as I'm (perhaps irrationally) afraid that you'll stumble across it, part of me hopes that you do indeed find it and read it and think for a long, long time about it.

The way we met was so common, so everyday, so ordinary that it would be easy to forget. I was sitting on the stairs with my friend eating ice cream and you were about to go up those stairs. So we moved to give you a path, and I made a brief quip about not knowing where a certain state is on the map. It's a normal social thing to say, comments like, "Just trying to get a snack before my fifteen is over," or "Really excited about the Patriots game tonight," or "Wow, I almost forgot to get my phone before leaving." And most folks will reply quickly, say something like, "Good luck!" or "Yeah, I hope they win," or "Hey, you could always carry it in your briefcase," and then they'd move on and you'd move on and the entire interaction would be over in around thirty seconds.

You decided right then and there that because I didn't know where this state was, I must obviously be from outside the country. You asked me where I was born and if I was born in the U.S. When I told you I wasn't, you were almost satisfied with that answer -- assuming that I'm foreign and so it's acceptable for me not to know where this state is on the map -- but then you asked when I came here, and I told you I was one. At that point your condescension started erasing what small amount of social nicety you might have had at the start. You started talking to me like I must know nothing at all, like I'm oblivious to everything and ignorant about everything, just because I've lived in the U.S. most of my life and somehow don't know where this one damn state is on the map.

But that's not even the half of it. That was warm-up for what you did next.

Somehow or other, the topic of what I do came up, and I mentioned that I work in disability rights and public policy advocacy. (Fancy schmancy way of saying, I go to people in power and try to get them to change the way things are so they'll be better for us disabled folks.) You asked me why I was so involved in disability, and I told you, like I tell anyone who asks this (very tired) question, I'm disabled and so are most of my friends and colleagues.

For the next twenty minutes or so (hell, it might have even been closer to thirty), you decided to interrogate me about my experiences, while invalidating them, delegitimizing them, erasing them, individualizing them (and I don't mean that in the positive way), and outright mocking them. Yes, I watched you rolling your eyes at me when I decided to suck it up and answer your questions. And you want to know why I stayed there and kept letting the conversation (if you can call it that) continue? Because I believe in cultivating allies, in raising awareness, in developing public conscious of ableism and disability justice and neurodiversity. Because I'd like to think that most strangers, if ignorant at first, are willing to learn and that if they ask questions it's because they're coming from a place of wanting to understand.

Instead, you went full-blown self-narrating zoo exhibit and kept pushing me to explain what it means that I'm autistic, how my autism manifests, all the way down to insisting that I explain my thought processes. In case you're wondering (though I very sincerely doubt it), my thought processes are pretty private stuff.

You were arrogant as you rolled your eyes at me, conveying quite clearly that you believed hardly anything I was saying and in fact probably assumed that I'm incapable of either understanding what it "really" means to be autistic or that I'm not competent enough to accurate interpret my own experiences. You were entitled as you pressed me for personal details about myself, my life, my history, and my neurological fucking processes. You didn't read my signals to stop the line of questioning, to return to discussing my work or my ideas but instead decided that my innermost thoughts were suddenly yours to examine and inspect to your own invasive curiosity while simultaneously dismissing everything that I said as fabrication, delusional, inaccurate, or otherwise symptomatic of a defective mind.

It was so obvious that you refused to so much as entertain the possibility that something I said might be valid or relevant or right -- whether about existing and new paradigms of disability, or about my own personal experiences -- that I'm surprised, honestly, surprised, that I didn't lose my temper at you. I could have. Easily. Your body language communicated hostility and incredulity; your voice communicated condescension and arrogance; your questions communicated nothing but entitlement and the presumption that you, as a well-educated person, automatically know and understand far more about my own experiences that I do.

Somehow, I was not surprised when you started talking about the Deaf community as a legitimate cultural group because they are a linguistic minority but in the same breath assumed that speech is the most legitimate or highest form of language/communication. Somehow, I was not surprised when you in as many words began to talk down to me about "people who are profoundly autistic" as though I can't possibly be truly autistic and as though those who are labeled "profoundly autistic" don't have agency, don't have voices, don't participate in activism. Somehow, I was not surprised when you eventually turned to interrogate my friend who was with me, to ask if they were also autistic, as though autistics only ever socialize with other autistics (or are only capable of being around other autistics). Somehow, I was not surprised when you insisted on visually observing this friend toe-walk and then made them do it again, like, what, a well-trained dog? Somehow, I was not surprised when you asked me am I good at math -- because all Asians are good at math and all autistics are math savants, so I must be a total genius at math, right?

And you know, it's people like you who say that autistics can't understand nonverbal cues, that autistics can't control their impulses or feelings, that autistics can't communicate with other people, that autistics can't respect other people's boundaries. How ironic is that.

The next time you meet a stranger who makes an offhand comment to you, please respond with another offhand comment and then walk away. (Hint: It's a social skill.)

And I hope that if you ever speak to another autistic person again, you remember that actually, individual people are the experts on their own experiences. Do we know everything about everything? No, we don't. But you need to stop assuming that you somehow know us better than we do ourselves, because where I come from, that's called arrogance, condescension, and general assholery.

I sincerely hope you have a good evening.