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Inclusivity and ableism: making Brockport accessible to all

by Katherine Fernandez
Tue, Apr 16th 2019 10:00 pm

Have you ever been too lazy to open one of the doors on campus so you press the big blue square to open the doors automatically, but the doors take too long and now you’re left wishing you had just opened them manually? Although you may use the button as a shortcut, some people rely on these functions daily to get around. The College at Brockport held its first Understanding Ableism and Accessibility training session on Friday, April 12, in order to bring awareness to what ableism is and its pervasiveness in our society.

Ableism is a form of oppression that many see as just as ubiquitous as sexism and racism, but is rarely ever addressed openly. Professor Jennifer Ashton and student Devin Smith gave attendees a space to educate themselves while bringing awareness to the silent injustices that people who identify as “disabled” deal with everyday. Ashton emphasized open-mindedness and encouraged everyone to “listen actively, allow space for mistakes and revision and be accountable for what you say” during the conversation. 

There is a dark history associated with the treatment of disabled people in society. Up until the 1970s people who were disabled were segregated and institutionalized and labeled as people who were unable to be functioning members of society. The Western medical lens painted disability out to be a problem within the individual that needed to be rectified and as such, medical professionals turned to eugenics, often sterilizing people with disabilities without their consent and subjecting them to cruel “treatments.” 

Although this is no longer practiced, it is commonplace for pregnant women to have prenatal testing to try to project the odds of their child being disabled. Scenarios like this have been the focus of many popular television story arcs, while the parents hold their braths as they await the results. Chair of the President’s Council of Diversity and Inclusion, Ashton made it clear that disability is not an illness to be cured or fixed, but rather an inability to access one’s surroundings. Once we break down the institutional barriers that make universal accessibility nearly impossible, according to Ashton, we can be better. 

“The PCDI is a campus wide council that has faculty, staff, administration and students and we are working on establishing shared understandings of equity, diversity and inclusion,” Ashton said. “We look at different aspects of accessibility across campus and we bring them up in collaborative, productive ways. We work closely with facilities to make accessibility more systemic and integrate them more into our institutional practices.”

With the establishment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), institutions are now required to make their structures physically more accessible. Some believe compliance with ADA standards is a weak baseline, setting incredibly low standards that still exclude many people with disabilities. Attendee Jess Cherry agreed that compliance is far from what it should be.

“It encourages reactivity instead of proactivity,” Cherry said. “With a lot of our facilities on campus, we don’t modify them to be more accessible unless somebody comes forward and identifies openly with a disability and says ‘This needs to be more accessible.’”

Ashton compared Brockport’s Cooper Hall with the more recently constructed Liberal Arts Building and North Campus layout. With the implementation of elevators, wide doorways, ADA compliant doors and long ramps that serve as substitutes for stairs, the newest additions to campus are the peak of accessibility at Brockport. In contrast, Cooper was originally constructed as a lab school for children before ADA compliance existed. The bathrooms and doorways are extremely narrow and almost all entrances require students to go up a few stairs in order to enter the building. 

In November of 2015, Donald Trump publicly mocked a disabled New York Times reporter. When a figure in such a high position of power openly ridicules members of the disabled community, it can set the tone for others to do the same, which people see as setting back the progress that the disabled community has made in its efforts to self-advocate and properly represent themselves. 

In its effort to continue making The College at Brockport an inclusive community, the school is currently working on adding braille identifiers on buildings around campus and booked an interpreter for the upcoming Lavender Ceremony. Smith gave a few general tips to help everyone be considerate of disabled people by avoiding words like handicapped or crippled, which insinuate that those with disabilities are lesser. Rather, use “person first language” that stresses a person with a disability is more like a person without disabilities than they are different. People can practice mirroring language and treat people how they wanted to be treated rather than assuming how they want to be treated.

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