July 20, 2020

Academia’s narrow gates: People with disabilities should not be deterred from higher ed

First-person essay by Dylan Kapit
Photograph of essay author Dylan Kapit. They are standing outside looking straight at the camera. They're wearing a transgender pride flag around their shoulders and a shirt that says I don't want to look or be cis.
Dylan Kapit is a queer, trans, non-binary, autistic advocate and activist who is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. (Courtesy photo)

Like many other systems in the United States, higher education is not designed for the majority of the population. It is not designed for people of color; it is not designed for low-income folks; and it is not designed for people with disabilities.

Are there still ways to thrive in these systems as a student with a disability? Sure.

But it isn’t easy. It almost always involves a fight. And it often requires that the disabled student advocate for their needs instead of getting help from the institution.

Let me walk you through some of the ways that higher education gatekeeps institutions from folks with disabilities by letting you in on a little bit of my personal experience.

I have disabilities. Several of them. I have autism, ADHD, several psychiatric needs and a learning disability. As a result, academics are often very difficult for me.

Let me be clear: I’m one of the lucky ones. When I was a kid, my parents took me to a doctor who told my parents that I had disabilities. They wrote me a 20-page report, and those 20 pages have been the key to my academic success. I have brought those 20 pages with me to every institution I have attended. At each office, I have to submit a copy of this documentation to prove that I really do need the accommodations that I am requesting. Though my trans and non-binary identities are sometimes confusing to these offices, as a white student with no visible disabilities, I rarely have issues getting services. Even within the disability community, there are levels of privilege.

Many people within the disability community, including friends of mine from my higher education career, have not been so lucky. My friends with mobility needs have found that sometimes the offices of disability services are hidden in inaccessible parts of buildings, occasionally with door frames that are not even ADA compliant and don’t fit their wheelchairs or walkers. Friends with chronic illnesses who need housing accommodations or friends with psychiatric needs who need emotional support animals often need to submit mountains of paperwork to the offices of disability services, with no guarantee that they will receive the supports for which they are asking.

The first stop for many students with disabilities in higher education is the institution’s office of disability services. Navigating these offices is incredibly annoying. They are often understaffed and underfunded. The people who work in these offices are usually well-meaning folks who don’t have disabilities themselves, have gone through no disability training and really have no understanding of what it means to navigate higher ed with a disability.

To get services from one of these poorly run offices, you typically need documentation that says you have disabilities, describes how those disabilities are going to get in the way of your school experience and outlines the accommodations the office can provide to help you have the best experience possible. To get this documentation, you probably need to get a neuropsychological evaluation. These can cost thousands of dollars and are not always covered by insurance. This means that many people are not even able to get the documentation necessary to have services at higher education institutions.

Because so many people with disabilities in higher education institutions are told that their needs are inconvenient, many people with disabilities, myself included, start to feel ashamed of our status.

In fact, even with my documentation, I have had professors straight up tell me that I have to take tests with the remainder of the class, which goes directly against the testing accommodations that I am always granted by the office of disability services. I have had professors tell me that my needs are inconvenient, or that they are not interested in treating me differently from the rest of their students. I know many friends with disabilities who have also been told that their needs are inconvenient to their professors, or that the professors’ lives were made harder because they had to provide these accommodations. Though the majority of my experience has shown that professors and universities have the capacity to be accommodating, it is worth noting that even with my privilege and documentation, I am still sometimes denied my legal rights to accommodations.

Because so many people with disabilities in higher education institutions are told that their needs are inconvenient, many people with disabilities, myself included, start to feel ashamed of our status.

In fact, while I was at Barnard College, I was so ashamed of my needs that I only let slip that I’m autistic a couple of times. Each time, unkind peers told me that their understanding of folks with autism was someone who was nonverbal and unintelligent, so I must not be smart and, therefore, did not deserve to even be present. The ableism present in higher education leads to students with disabilities being made to feel like an inconvenience, which often leads to these students internalizing this ableism and actually beginning to feel like an inconvenience.

There have been students with disabilities in higher education forever, whether people were talking about it or not. We are just as deserving of this level of education as anyone else. We have a lot to contribute to the world and just need these institutions to give us the accommodations we need to be on the same playing field as all of our able-bodied and/or neurotypical peers.

Dylan Kapit (they/them), M.A., is a queer, trans, non-binary, autistic advocate and activist who is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh working on a sex education curriculum for individuals with autism. They can be reached at dkapit94@gmail.com, on Twitter @dylankapit, or on Instagram @transteachertales.