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NewsMar 25, 2022

It’s not a ‘you’ problem

Community members host ‘Deconstructing Disability: Navigating Disability in Higher Ed’ panel

Students sit in chairs in a circle having a class discussion on Lesley's lawn.

By Georgia Sparling

Understanding the many facets of living with disabilities means listening and letting go of preconceived notions. Tuesday night’s “Deconstructing Disability: Navigating Disability in Higher Ed” panel did just that as staff, faculty and students shared their experiences of living with disabilities. The following Q&A from the panel, which was moderated by Disability Services Executive Director Daniel Newman, has been edited for length and content. The full video with transcript is available to Lesley community members.

When you think about your educational journeys prior to higher education what stands out?

Reese Hogan ’23 (special education and history major with ADHD): I was put on an IEP (individualized education program) in elementary school. I had that IEP taken away from me twice. I’ve always had the sense of not being disabled enough to get services, however being too disabled to reside within the “normal” student population.

Holly Aldrich (assistant director of Disability Services, has cerebral palsy): I didn’t think of myself as a disabled person prior to higher education. Because of this, much of my time as a student was shaded by masking or downplaying the more physical aspects of my disability. Connected to this was this need to compensate. If I had to be disabled, I had to be smart and disabled. There was so much internalized ableism in that.

Sara Lorraine Snyder ’25 (expressive arts therapy major, has a connective tissue and mitochondrial disorder): In elementary school, I really accepted that I had a disability…but then in my high school years I had to use a wheelchair to get around. My disability was shared without my telling it verbally. It was really isolating at times.

Bill Porter Portrait
Bill Porter, an adjunct professor at Lesley, leads the Disability Advocacy and Education Group.

Bill Porter MFA ’15 (adjunct professor in animation and motion media, has a progressive vision disorder): I knew I wanted to be an artist my whole life. It never came into my mindset that my vision could impede that. I saw a specialist when I was 18. He told me not to pursue art and give up on it. It’s been something I’ve been trying to prove wrong my whole life since then.

How was your college experience?

Hogan: I feel as though I fit in a lot more. I am not only allowed to academically excel in college, but I have a sense that I socially belong with people.

Aldrich: I was lucky to be able to center disability in my studies in college and graduate school. It was the first time I learned about disability as a social identity. It allowed my intellect and my disability to coalesce.

If I had to be disabled, I had to be smart and disabled.
There was so much internalized ableism in that.
Holly Aldrich, Assistant Director of Disability Services

Snyder: It’s a complete 180. I already feel so much more appreciated and understood. My advocacy has gone somewhere. Accommodations are so much better. Professors are really interested in watching you thrive. I’ve loved being at Lesley so far.

Porter: When I was an undergraduate…I could hide my disability. I probably should have been more open rather than faking it.

When, in your past, you talked about your disability, how did people respond?

Holly Aldrich headshot
Holly Aldrich, assistant director of Disability Services

Aldrich: Most people aren’t well versed on the idea of disability as a positive aspect of a community. I love when people try and move through their questions and discomfort. I do struggle with reactions of pity, discomfort and disgust, which is pretty common. Those reactions (show they) don’t see me as a full human being and they can’t make space for what I have to say or how I think about my disability. All of this impedes true connection and understanding.

Porter: When I started using a cane some people were screaming at me and saying I’m faking it, (other) people started (trying to help me by) pulling me places. That was my greatest fear in being open. What are people going to think? How are they going to respond? They respond in every way.

Snyder: I’ve found that it’s very important to tell people in a job environment or a school environment. I would not get through some of the things that I have to do if I did not disclose that I have accommodations.

What is something you might say to someone to help them become an ally?

Hogan: We are not disposable. We are just like everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with us. Our voices matter in both disabled-based issues and otherwise.

When someone tells you they are disabled, it’s not a moment
to treat them any differently than before you had the information.
Sara Lorraine Snyder ’25

 

Porter: Ask questions, don’t make assumptions. The more people assume things, the more awkward it gets and the more misunderstanding there is.

Sara Lorraine Snyder headshot
Freshman Sara Lorraine Snyder

Aldrich: Listen to disabled people. Follow disabled creators on Instagram and other social media, read books…Please try to engage in media with accurate depictions of disabled people. When a disabled person tries to share a story with you, don’t get stuck in guilt or minimizing.

Snyder: When someone tells you they are disabled, it’s not a moment to treat them any differently than before you had the information. It’s really important to be patient and listen and most of all to be kind and considerate.

How would you integrate different aspects of disability into the curriculum and into different aspects of life on campus?

Aldrich: If we don’t include disability as part of the curriculum, we are essentially erasing disabled people from that narrative or implying that they’re rare or don’t matter. They’ve existed in every part of history. We just need to highlight their work and name them as disabled.

Snyder: College is really where you find yourself, not only who you are but also hopefully what you want to do with the rest of your life, and if you don’t see yourself reflected in anything you’re watching, reading, etc., I think that can feel pretty isolating.

Advice on dealing with internalized ableism.

Aldrich: Find a disabled community. Internalized ableism is magnified and feels even more lonely and desolate when you’re going through it alone. It allows you to see it’s not a ‘you’ problem.

Porter: It’s not necessarily going to be the people you would expect. Sometimes when you’re seeking support you have to be patient and not give up.

Reese Hogan headshot
Junior Reese Hogan

Hogan: The best thing to realize through your process of unlearning ableism instilled within you is to be patient with yourself and be forgiving because it's going to be hard. The first step to unlearning one's own internalized ableism is acknowledging it.

 

For more resources, Bill Porter leads a Disability Advocacy and Education Group that both advocates for Lesley’s disabled community and plans events and initiatives that serve to educate the Lesley community on disability. Email Porter for more information. Lesley also has a Disability Affinity Group to provide a safe space for anyone from the Lesley community who identifies as disabled. This includes the full spectrum of physical and cognitive disabilities. Those interested in joining or learning more may email Reese Hogan.