Gabby Morreale ’23 (She/Her)
It’s a cool November night, mist shining off the roads, mixing with the rotting leaves that conglomerate in the gutters. A group of students huddle together around a small fire pit, laughing and joking and talking into the cold night while making s’mores. It’s the Davidson Disability Alliance, enjoying what was their very first bonfire rant session as an organization. Each and any participant was invited to come to unburden their frustrations of what it is like to live with a disability on Davidson’s campus. They can write it and burn it into the glowing fire, or shout it into a megaphone for the group to hear. It is euphoric and calming at the same time. The event started at 7:30, but the group gathered well into the night, unravelling their worries and tying them in fellowship to their fellow disabled students in spoken or written form.
And then, the next morning, the bubble pops. An anonymous student, whether a participant or not, posts on Yik Yak, “what the f*ck is a disability bonfire/rant session and who came up with this idea??” When another student posts, “we need more support for disabled students on this campus,” another user quips back, “it’s called the wrestling team,” and yet another user makes glib remarks insinuating that being queer is a disability. Disabled voices, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are consistently silenced on Davidson’s campus. Last year, I wrote an article expressing my concerns with the compatibility of disability accommodations with the new COVID mask wearing rules and social distancing.
I thought that the majority of the ableism I would experience would come from the administration. But consistently, it is clear that the deeper ableism arises from the student body’s “work hard, play hard” culture. Getting the best grades possible, engaging in extracurriculars, getting a job — all of these things are a major part of many students’ lives at Davidson. While these are all noble goals, participating in this excess is the space where disability students are forced to suffer in silence. Even in this time of the pandemic, it is normal here to work for hours at a time without stopping. Many of my friends complain about only having half an hour to eat between classes. The amount of all-nighters pulled and obligations in one day determines the winner of the Pain Olympics. No one talks about the mental toll this takes on a human being, whether one has a disability or not.
So it’s no surprise that those who have disabilities on this campus are not heard; their complaints blend into an able-bodied campus’s desire to keep moving. Disabled students have no time to come to terms with their identity as disabled individuals because they are too busy trying to fit into the “academic rigor” that Davidson’s curriculum provides. But what about the fact that I cannot live on campus without a roommate, for fear I might get caught in a fire and not hear the fire alarm? What about the fact that only four people in my 30-person class about disability consistently wear clear masks as a part of my accommodations? What about the fact that in my philosophy class, no one wears a clear mask at all, including the professor? What about the fact that I am constantly afraid to reveal that I am severely to profoundly deaf, and when I do, I don’t know how to respond to, “I couldn’t even tell”? Disabled students have become very good at camouflaging the challenges from their disabilities to that of their fellow nondisabled classmates’ struggles, because they do not feel comfortable attributing any struggle to disability. When they do address the difference, they are shamed by other students through a direct attack or through the marginalization of another already marginalized group, as seen in those anonymous Yik Yaks. It’s not that there are few disabled students on campus; it’s just that there are few vocal ones.
Another reason why ableism is so prevalent at Davidson is its emphasis on the student-athlete population. My Instagram feed is littered with posts about the next football game, my email flooded with Athlete spotlights and team victories. We’re the fastest, we’re the strongest, the mightiest. When an athlete is injured, our athletic facilities and sports medicine doctors make sure to give the highest care to help them recover from that temporary disability. It’s an honorable injury in other students’ eyes, a normal result of playing too hard and of expected overexertion.
Last week, the top post on Yik Yak was “upvote if you are burned out”, which garnered over 100 likes. It is nearly impossible to get an appointment with Davidson’s counseling services because the therapists are always booked up. SGA is looking to hire another counselor and are looking to bring training counselors on campus as well. Davidson’s Academic Access and Disability Resources Office does a wonderful job of providing accommodations for any student that needs it. But when the community of students are called upon to help enact those accommodations, there are mixed responses. It is important that the response is a unanimous and unconditional “yes.” Our prioritization of the disabled voices on campus will not just benefit those with specific disabilities. Integrating a habit of accommodating disability in Davidson’s culture will benefit everyone. Disability affects every Davidson student’s life, whether directly or indirectly, so it’s important to both initiate and sustain these conversations.
Gabby Morreale (she/her) is a communication studies major and philosophy minor. Gabby can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.