The Burden of Being: Exhaustion as Praxis in ‘Intersectional’ Academia
UBC is an alarmingly inaccessible campus. It was when I began my undergraduate degree on crutches, it continued to be when I transitioned to a cane, and occasionally still is now that I am mobility-aid free in my daily life. Navigating the campus as a freshman is difficult enough, but when construction projects block accessible routes from class buildings to the bus loops; ledges or other obstacles stand in the way of ramps and elevators; bathrooms are located on different floors than classrooms and only through darkened stairwells; and winter travel is obstructed by un-shoveled snow turning into unsalted ice through major campus corridors, my overwhelming first-year fear of conspicuous lateness was exacerbated by the very real risk of injuring myself further in an attempt to avoid it. My academic career was launched through a lens of experience I had never given much thought to as a chronically ill scholar – as my obstacles, though ever-present – were concealable. When my illness became physically apparent the discourses of academic elitism were embodied in my reality, in the very stones that threatened my right to the lecture hall. The majority of my energy was spent on navigating to and from class, leaving my early scholarship depleted and my psyche fraught with anxiety. As a non-able-bodied scholar, this was my first experience of exhaustion as praxis.
Treating disabled and chronically ill scholars as afterthoughts is not an isolated issue. Although the university has made some improvements in campus accessibility since my first years here, I was reminded – quite uncomfortably – of the disregard for disabled students and staff when construction of the entrance to the bus loop continued into September of this year. After helping a woman in a manual wheelchair pay for an accessible cab home due to the insurmountable task of safely navigating to the alternative bus stop across the unpaved, pothole-ridden, poorly marked and poorly organized intersection, I was struck by how her situation mirrored my own first experience of campus. How can we focus on our education and our teaching if even moving across campus makes us unsafe? When one’s work is primarily concerned with getting to and from lecture safely, being viewed as a legitimate scholar who is there out of merit and not ‘riding on coattails’, and grappling with discourses in the literature that may mirror or reflect one’s own life experiences with prejudice, the result is widespread exhaustion and a culture of instability and turmoil. When institutions profit off of the positive publicity of having disabled and chronically ill scholars – either through improvements in public image or ‘ticking boxes’ in an effort to meet a representational quota – without implementing stable policies to support those scholars, they are exploiting the emotional and physical energy of scholars they propose to support. In this case, disabled and chronically ill scholars are often not invited into academic discussions as true equals, but as embodied representations of a poorly-executed philosophy of ‘intersectionality’: having disabled scholars teaching disability theory looks good on paper, but without implementing policy that supports those scholars in their needs as disabled scholars, it is nothing short of a duplicitous performance. This is exemplified in the embodied experience of architecture and its foregrounding of the social hierarchies within academia that perpetuate the exploitation and emotional exhaustion of disabled and chronically-ill scholars.
The issue of academic architecture and ableist rhetoric is beautifully outlined by Jay Timothy Dolmage in his book “Academic Ableism: Disability in Higher Education,” in which he outlines, among other things, the way university architecture both represents and replicates ableist assumptions of acceptable (or desirable) scholars. Dolmage writes:
The steep steps metaphor describes how the university has been constructed as a place for the very able. The steep steps metaphor puts forward the idea that access to the university is a movement upwards—only the truly “fit” survive this climb. University campuses have lots of steep steps—but the entire university experience can also be metaphorized as a movement up steep steps. The steep steps, physically and figuratively, lead to the ivory tower. The tower is built upon ideals and standards—historically, this is an identity that the university has embraced. I want to suggest that we have mapped the university in this way—as a climb up the stairs of the ivory tower—for particular reasons. Often, maps are created not to reveal exclusion, but to create it. Mapping is traditionally a mode of closing-off, of containment. Simply, maps cut people out much more than they fit people in. David Sibley, the cultural geographer who has perhaps most extensively theorized the exclusionary potential of spatialization, extends this idea of “structuring subjectivity.” He writes that “space and society are implicated in the construction of the boundaries of the self but […] the self is also projected onto society and onto space” (86). Simply, how we want to understand ourselves affects how we construct and experience space.
The nature of the stairs themselves offers several rhetorical readings for how academic institutions isolate and exploit disabled academics. The stairs are an embodied hierarchy, with people definitely above and below you on the gruelling climb to the top. The stairs create divides, build obstacles, delay those who do not already possess the means to move swiftly through the ranks. They, by design, delay and dissuade those whom the institution does not want to ascend and exhaust those who forego their mental and physical wellbeing to make it to the top. When we get to the top, however, as disabled and chronically ill scholars, we are congratulated for our achievements and used as examples – despite, in many cases, being neglected on the journey up or encouraged to move back (or fall) down the stairs. As we move up the stairs – manoeuvring through inaccessible campuses and convoluted social systems to ascend, we are congratulated for ‘beating the odds,’ having ‘gumption’ and ‘good spirits’, and our exhaustion in many ways becomes essentialized into our scholarship. As we are praised for our exhaustion (our ‘determination’), our exhaustion becomes our praxis. In turn, our praxis informs our scholarship, and a cycle begins that causes us to believe that operating on empty is the norm, all while the institution profits off of ableist discourses of minority scholars ‘beating the odds’. Additionally, we are often too drained – emotionally and physically – by navigating these spaces to advocate for ourselves, lest we risk our credibility as independent and autonomous scholars.
Architectural ableism in spaces of knowledge production and knowledge consumption are, unfortunately, not just confined to academia. Hunter’s Point Library in Queens is currently under fire for a massive oversight in its recently unveiled design of their new fiction section. They’ve created a completely inaccessible, tiered (and therefore hierarchical) library experience. A decorative staircase is the only access point to these literary sections, no ramp, elevator, or alternative access exists.
Referring to the three fiction levels that he [the architect] originally described in his review as “terraced stacks, like a vineyard of words,” he now observed critically of himself: “I focused on the way study carrels and bookshelves were interleaved, making old-fashioned printed volumes a part of everyone’s experience. I did not focus on the fact that not everyone could get there.” (Davidson, 2019)
Exemplary of Dolmage’s analysis of the institutional staircase and reminiscent of UBC’s poor planning of accessible routes despite ongoing discussion, the lofty, tiered fiction section of Hunter’s Point Library perpetuates the unfortunate attitude that ‘people with disabilities have been traditionally seen as objects of study in higher education, rather than as teachers or students’ (Dolmage, ch. 1). The library back-peddled, stating that staff would retrieve books for patrons from the upper echelons of the staircase, but I argue that simply adds insult to injury. The conception of the design is ignorant enough, but proposing a book-retrieval system as a substitute for free, open, and unencumbered access to knowledge is not enough. Opportunity is not ability, especially in issues of autonomous access to knowledge.
Opportunity and ability are mutually exclusive. Opportunity does not necessarily beget ability, and this is an unfortunate assumption that needs unpacking when discussing exhaustion in academia. The institution’s insistence on commodifying struggle in lieu of alleviating it perpetuates an assumption that simply because there is an opportunity available to someone that it is then their merit, their work ethic, their intellect or their drive that decides whether or not they succeed in taking the opportunity. Ability, however, is a different thing. The ability to experience academia as it is intended to be experienced is reserved for a privileged few, regardless of who has the opportunity to pursue it. Everyone has the opportunity to cross campus in the winter, when the streets are slick with ice and troubled by snow. Not everyone has the ability to traverse the landscape safely and without undue stress, and commodifying that struggle for those who continue to press on despite a lack of realistic support is emotional extortion. Successful scholarship isn’t simply a game of wits and wills, it’s a game of stability as well – and one cannot maintain stability in the face of consistent and ever-present overwhelm.
I must acknowledge, in conclusion, that ableism exists in numerous forms and runs deep in the veins of all of society, not simply academic institutions. That being said, to theorize and exemplify ableism in all its forms and all its iterations is material for a book series, not a blog post. For the sake of space, and to serve hopefully as a thought-provoking piece for those who may not have thought of structural design as a barrier to learning, my goal for this short critical analysis is to draw attention to something the institution can realistically improve on in a measurable amount of time. The institution is improving in their support for disabled and chronically ill students on campus, but according to current research that support does not extend to disabled and chronically ill scholars. The very least we can do for our scholars and our students is to ensure that they are able to get to and from class safely and efficiently, with full autonomy and independence. An institution that prides itself on platforming disabled and chronically ill scholars without reasonable support should not be praised for doing the bare-minimum – particularly – when the only way to that effervescent platform is a set of steep, marble stairs.
 If you are interested in learning more about disability studies I highly recommend you read this article on the first annual Ableism in Academia conference that took place in Leeds this year.
Brown, Nicole, and Jennifer Leigh. “Ableism in Academia: Where Are the Disabled and Ill Academics?” Disability & Society, vol. 33, no. 6, June 2018, pp. 985–989., doi:10.1080/09687599.2018.1455627.
Dolmage, Jay Timothy. “Steep Steps.”Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, University of Michigan Press, 2017.
Image: “Stairs, Spiral, Staircase, Stairwell” via Pixabay. License: CC0 1.0 Universal
Kim, Elizabeth. “After Uproar About Accessibility, Hunters Point Library Will Relocate Fiction Section.” Gothamist, Gothamist, 4 Oct. 2019, https://gothamist.com/news/after-uproar-about-accessibility-hunters-point-library-will-relocate-fiction-section.
McGurk, Hannah. “Ableism in Academia.” Ableism in Academia : Centre for Disability Studies, 31 May 2018, https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/ableism-in-academia/.
“My Academic Supervisor Bullied Me for My Disability – and I Said Nothing | Academics Anonymous.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 July 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/jul/06/my-academic-supervisor-bullied-me-for-my-disability-and-i-said-nothing.
Pain, Elisabeth. “Survey Highlights the Challenges Disabled Academics Face-and What Can Be Done to Address Them.” Science, 26 July 2017, doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1700039.S
Great article! I have suffered from both physical and mental health challenges at university. It seems the support for students with those challenges are mostly symbolic.
The article points out how accessibility services are often symbolic gestures; with the purpose of furthering the institutional motives of marketing and profit. Thus the gesture in such scenarios remains as such – an empty gesture.