by Scott Marshall, Associate Director
University of Minnesota Disability Resource Center
This summer, the university where I work featured a campaign on its home page that asked students to “come curious” to their new university setting.
This got me thinking about curiosity, about which author Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”
Insubordination. That led me to wonder about courage and its relationship to curiosity. As I understand it, the root of courage -“cour” – is French for “heart”.
And that led me to this: What about “Come courageous” as also a calling? And not just for students.
A University is made up of, even aims to bring together, people from all sorts of spectrums. And yet when it comes to people for whom our campus creates barriers, we frequently categorize them as “disabled”. In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block talks about inverting the way we often consider cause and effect: instead of parents make kids, kids make parents; audiences make shows, citizens make civic leaders. Suppose we inverted our notion of disability: Instead of the person is disabled, the environment disables the person. Stay curious.
Many of us take for granted the ways we interact with others, with our environment, with information. Think about your role not just in participating in those interactions, consider your role in creating opportunities and barriers for others to interact.
- What questions do you have about this? From this idea, how are your thoughts about disability changed?
- Does it affect your relationship with disability in terms of your professional responsibilities?
- How does it make you feel?
- What could (will) you do differently to minimize the disabling affects of our environments?
People who experience these barriers have been talking about this inversion – that the environment disables people – for long time , and naming it as the “social model of disability.” While many people have been busy medicalizing, fixing, abnormalizing, and otherizing, some folks have realized this truth: Our environment does disable. We disable.
Interrogating that fact calls us to be both curious and courageous. Our actions of curiosity and courage might start with a look at how the English usage is complicit in making the problem “theirs” instead of OURS.
Join me for a minute in the grammar weeds? Many people talk about “disabled people” or “Jennifer, who is disabled….” In these cases “disabled” is an adjective. Let’s take “Jennifer is disabled…” and consider that this could read: “Jennifer is disabled by ___________.” Flip this into active voice: “The ___________ disables Jennifer.” Now we have a transitive verb – a verb (disables) that has an object (Jennifer) to take the verb’s action. This means there’s something or someone other than Jennifer with a role in what we call disability. It might be a staircase, an app, an instructor’s attitude, or an article.
I’m getting to the outer limits of my grammar knowledge here. The point is that it’s easy for those of us without disabilities to stay safe with the noun or the adjective, to say that people “have disabilities” or some people “are disabled”. It lets us off the hook. It lets us keep on with our business without any need to change – and it keeps our privilege in tact, even strengthens it.
BUT, when we say “Our Web sites disable our students,” then we are implicated, culpable even. Now it’s not “their condition” or “their problem”, it’s OUR condition and OUR problem because as citizens of the University, we ALL have a role to play in creating accessible environments (physical, digital, social, informational, attitudinal, programmatic.) that don’t disable members of our community.
Come curious. Come courageous. Become curious and courageous.
I think the most sustainable way into accessibility and inclusion is through our hearts. We all have responsibility in this. It requires curiosity to reflect on how this plays out in our work. It requires us to insubordinate the defaults each of us carries around. And questioning our defaults, challenging our ways of being and our privileges – that requires courage.
What would it mean for you to get curious about the disabling effects of your work? What would courage look like in this curiosity?
Here are a few ideas from our colleagues at the University of Washington and UW’s Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center that you might become curious about and even act courageously toward:
- Create accessible documents for everyday course materials with step-by-step guidance.
- Develop an accessible Web site, making use of the practical advice here, too, for setting up your Moodle site (or other virtual learning environment) in ways accessible for assistive technologies.
- Integrate principles of Universal Design into your course design with insights drawn from this Checklist for Inclusive Practice.
Exploring the links is curiosity: How can I create a more inclusive course?
Practicing what you learn – something new and uncertain? That’s courage.