To a person without a disability, the life of a person with one is nearly impossible to truly comprehend.
That is not to say that our lives are impossibly difficult or painful. No, many people with disabilities are able to lead rich, fulfilling lives. For us, in some conditions and cases our disabilities can be an afterthought. As a nineteen-year-old woman with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, I can attest to this fact. Not every person with a disability suffers unimaginably.
It is simply that the way they lead their lives is unimaginably different. We may have to invent new ways of doing things on a day-to-day basis. Things that come naturally to most people may be difficult or even impossible for us. What might be an afterthought, if that, for a student without a disability can be a serious issue for us.
One of the simplest examples is warning alarms. Designed to be loud enough to wake a person from a sound sleep and to get the attention of someone blasting music into their headphones, these alarms contain a potentially serious flaw in this same system. For a person with autism or another sensory processing disorder that causes them to hear more acutely than an average person, these alarms can be painfully loud. Not only does that cause us stress, but in a true emergency, this could be dangerous, as a person might be too overwhelmed by the noise level to actually respond adequately to the situation.
We are often excluded from social situations because the volume of music is too loud for a person with a sensory disorder and the environment is not suitable for persons with physical disabilities. When we complain, we are often pushed aside, all but told straight out that this is our problem, and others have no intention of accommodating it.
And then we get to college. And college opens a whole new can of worms. Because college classes assume a specific, shared way of learning possessed by all students. And that is simply not the case.
"In Spanish class, I find that I am unable to use my visual and auditory learning skills at the same time," says Ben Stone, a student at UW-Marshfield who also has autism. "I must either listen to my teacher and respond in kind or write what she is writing and respond in writing. I cannot process in opposing learning styles at the same time." A class, therefore, that would expect a student to take notes on the words a teacher says, which most people would not even note as unusual, would be impossible for a student like Ben.
And notes aren't the only issue. For people who have difficulty maintaining focus, just staying connected to a lecture that does not completely engage them can be incredibly difficult. "A standard lecture, sage on the stage, can be hard to follow," says Leon Lynn, a college graduate with a diagnosis of ADHD Type 2. "It takes a lot of practice to keep concentration on the lecture and not just start writing short stories in my head."
As if this weren't bad enough, some teachers implement policies that make an already challenging task even more difficult. A prime example is no-laptop policies. Teachers implement these policies for any number of well-intentioned reasons, but these policies serve to hurt people like me, for whom note-taking by hand, at the speed required, is physically impossible. Of course, these policies include an attempt to accommodate. "If you have a disability that requires you to use a computer for note-taking," one syllabus reads, "please see the professor for an exception to this rule."
What, then, is the problem? The problem is that to be that one student with a laptop in a no-laptop class is essentially to out yourself to the entire class as a person with a disability. For a person with a non-evident disability, a category that encompasses most learning disorders, the decision of whom to tell that one has a disability and when is highly personal. Such policies take the power of making this important decision out of our hands, forcing us to reveal what we might otherwise have kept private.
Though I do not personally experience this, I also know from the stories of others that people with physical disabilities encounter equally, if not more, significant obstacles. Although all buildings are required by law to be handicap-accessible, that does not necessarily mean easily accessible. They may have more trouble finding adequate parking or getting from their vehicle to classroom buildings. There may be only one accessible door, and that may not be easy to get to, especially in bad weather. There may be only one elevator, and it may be hard to find. And if that one elevator breaks down, it is not a minor inconvenience as it might be for the able-bodied among us. It is a significant obstruction. It could cause them to miss a class or even an exam.
And now, the University of Wisconsin-Madison seems determined to make day-to-day life even harder for these people. An October 4th article in The Daily Cardinal reported a plan by UW-Madison Transportation Services to remove 55 disabled parking spaces on campus, claiming they are rarely used. What the decision makers fail to take into account is that if they are ever used, then they are not superfluous. To a person without a disability, these sorts of things can be done in numbers and figures, neat calculations. For those who rely on these spaces, every space removed represents a hardship. They don't have the luxury of detachment.
This project also suffers from a symptom that too often plagues attempts by people without disabilities to help those with -some of the presumably helpful accommodations have major practical flaws. The same Daily Cardinal article mentions that part of the plan is to move handicapped parking spaces into garages, intending to make them more usable in this way. However, as the article points out, a fair number of disabled vans do not clear the low ceilings inside parking garages, making them useless to some of the people who need them most. To add insult to injury, the plan also includes proposals to change some of the remaining handicapped parking spaces to require a University parking permit, which costs $495 per year. A person's ability to access the accommodations they need should not be dependent on whether or not they can afford to pay.
Too long have students with disabilities lived on the margins. Now is the time to push for inclusion, not to create policies that marginalize them even more.