Review: Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education

Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education by Jay Timothy Dolmage
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dolmage explores the structural and institutional aspects of ableism that permeate throughout higher education's present and past. Simply put, the academy does little to include people with disabilities. At the core of this exploration, he illustrates how some bodies are upheld by these aspects and therefore, granted the means to study and pursue knowledge while other bodies are devalued and meant to be the objects of study, often with an insistence to dismiss or cure.  It's a brilliant critique that first discusses how the rhetoric of institution spaces highlight the ways institutions create and maintain their spaces as spaces that are not accessible or made accessible through measures that draw attention to those in need of accessible measures (rather than a natural part of structures through practices like universal design). 

He pivots into a critical discussion that highlights how Western science during the 1700s and 1800s simultaneously created eugenics, mental asylums, and the modern university.  He shows how the concepts of eugenics (good and bad genes and bodies) showed up in both asylums' and institutions' approaches to whom was and wasn't let in while also creating physical spaces (institutional grounds) that mirrored one another in many capacities.  

After this setup, he moves into five chapters that create an arc through how institutions and then the world at large deal with and re-presents disabled bodies on their campuses.  The first approach is what he refers to as "steep steps"--structures of exclusion on campus that are in place that prohibit or make clear the type of bodies the institution wants on campus. These measures show up in myriad ways across campuses (in my own experience, I remember one campus I worked at where the VP of Students worked in an office that was not accessible by wheelchair). Next, he delves into institutions' attempts to retrofit spaces to include people with disabilities. His critique here highlights the fact that the retrofit is always poorly made, unnecessary draws attention to or creates a still-complicated process for the person with a disability.  It reinforces the person does not belong rather.  

At this juncture, Dolmage takes a chapter to explore the fictional student; the student that is created in various op-eds or institutional discussions that is a fraud or being done harm by an institution attempting to be inclusive. It draws upon numerous examples of how faculty, pundits, and institutions worry about a fictional student while simultaneously dismissing the real needs of real students.  While an invaluable contribution to the book's discussion overall, this chapter in the flow felt a bit off (could have been earlier before the 3 chapter arc of steep steps, retrofitting, and universal design). Dolmage offers an interesting discussion of universal design for learning in which he both praises it as the hallmark while simultaneously seeing how easily UDL can be watered down and infused with neoliberal practices to make it largely meaningless (thus, doing nothing to actually include effectively students or faculty or staff with disabilities).  The final chapter explores how disability on campuses shows up in popular films as a means of whitewashing and undermining the ways that it actually exists on campuses.  That is because it appears inclusive in popular culture, few actually challenge academia to make it inclusive.  In total, it's a damning and damn-good book that anyone interested in higher education should be reading.  And since the book intentionally aims to be accessible, it has been published as an open access book so folks can go to the University of Michigan Press website and free download it (the audiobooks is also free on audible).  

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