Letter from the Editor: Disability tokenization in college images

Erin Davenport


Davidson prides itself on numerous recent increases in diversity, and states on its website the intention to “strive to enrich our community by attracting, supporting, and retaining students, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds and perspectives who bring a variety of talents, passions, and worldviews [to Davidson]” (emphasis mine). On social media, where visual materials are often as important as the words around them, attracting a diverse student body necessarily raises questions of how the institution portrays itself in images and visual culture. The Davidson Admissions and Davidson College Instagram accounts are essential parts of how the college represents itself to the outside world. What happens, however, when the desire to produce content that showcases diversity leads to tokenization? Where is the space for self-narrated experiences? Who is behind the camera and who leads the narrative production process?

I became especially interested in this topic—and disappointed in its realities—while using Davidson’s official photo archives for a project. I received the link to an online portal that houses copyrighted images owned by the “Davidson College, College Communications” department. Alongside such descriptive and creatively named folders as “Fall” and “Artsy shots of campus” are a few which strike a much different tone: “Diversity” and “Students with Disabilities.”

Screenshot of Davidson College Communications’ Photo Gallery

The diversity folder first. While I can’t speak for communities of color, I personally was appalled to see that in sixteen of the eighteen photos in this album, a white professor was lecturing to a “diverse” group of students. The other two featured a Latina professor speaking to students, but the album overall gave very little consideration to the wide range of experiences and accomplishments of people of color on campus. While students may joke that interracial friend groups “look like they could be out of an admissions pamphlet,” they do not expect their institution to use their images in such a directly tokenizing manner.

The students with disabilities folder next. It brings a collection of images of students in wheelchairs. Most are moving through campus alongside walking companions. Several photos do not show the faces of the students with disabilities, opting instead for an outline of their backs, just enough detail to see the machinery in their chairs. Facelessness, the ultimate visual symbol of erasure, was the most egregious aspect of the photo album to me.

The idea that the college uses disability as a visual category and that, in an attempt to include disabled perspectives, someone created an entire folder of images focused on disabled students: these speak to a tepid inclusion, unmatched by any significant disabled representation at Davidson.


Image accompanying Jay Hurt Hub grant, as published on the official Davidson College Instagram account. Photo courtesy of Technology and Innovations Department

The college released an image on Monday along with a grant announcement. The picture shows a wheelchair-using woman (again, faceless) enjoying a computer-generated Hub. She joyfully and casually sits with colleagues (presumably) discussing innovation. The image prompted many questions for me, among them: How did this woman get to the Hub? If she is a student, did she have to go over the railroad tracks, which are not accessible? Does the T&I office have any plans to provide transportation assistance for those who are too disabled to reach its far-flung location of the Hub? Why is this woman in the image, and what purpose does she serve for this institution?

Cultural studies has begun to reckon with such confusing and complicated portrayals. Stuart Hall writes that an image’s “informational value is mediated through the perspective of the person making it, and it is presented as a mixture of emotion and information” (83). In other words “the lens of the camera is, in effect, the eye of the person looking at the print” (Ibid). Additionally, nothing that is visual exists without a social context around it; to borrow from the the visual anthropologist Peter Crawford, the concept of a “pure image” simply does not exist (66). While the photographers and image-creators may view themselves as simply curating “real” images, the viewer’s positionality and (lack of) experience with disability always shapes those images’ apparent “reality.” That anyone created a photo album to showcase and collect images of disabled students necessarily impacts the content of that album. Dehumanizing practices lead to uncomplicated, flat images.

As Lennard Davis writes, “Although higher education has improved in providing accommodations and services to students with disabilities since the Americans With Disability Act, it has lagged very far behind in recognizing and incorporating disability across the curriculum” (B40). This has very much been my experience as a disabled woman at Davidson. Despite efforts from scholars who integrate disability, including Dr. Ann Fox, I have seen very little institutional understanding about what it means to move through the world in a disabled body. When I went to request housing accomodations from the Disability Services Office I received a form asking for my GPA, conflating physical and learning disabilities and leaving me feeling all the more misunderstood. I am effectively barred from participating in summer study abroad programs in Europe because “the concept of a ‘short walk’ is just different over there.” I have had an advisor tell me she “doesn’t think of me as disabled,” despite my continued attempts to communicate the limits of my disability and the strength of my disability identity to her.

Images like the ones in the folder on the archives or on the preview of the Hub, used gratuitously, tout a certain kind of visual diversity with no true incorporation of disabled interests or voices into the narrative. I label this appropriative exploitation. We can do better on many fronts to incorporate, and not misuse, marginalized experiences. We can improve disabled students’ experiences such that they (we) can share our true voices in a positive way in institutional promotion. The current state of affairs—our voices implicitly silenced and our non-normative bodies used as tokens to promote the institution—is beneath us as a school and, more importantly, as a community.

*The link to the photogallery is here, and was live as we went to print.


Crawford, Peter Ian, et al. Film As Ethnography. Manchester University Press in Association with the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, 1992.

Davis, Lennard J. “Why Is Disability Missing from the Discourse on Diversity?.” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 58, no. 6, 30 Sept. 2011, pp. B38-B40

Hall, Stuart, et al. Representation. Second edition. ed., Sage, 2013.