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Accessibility, Ableism, and the Decline of Excellence

For many years, colleges and universities have observed the Americans with Disabilities Act by finding alternate ways for students with disabilities to meet course requirements. For example, a blind student might be accommodated by allowing a university representative to orally read the student questions from a written exam. A student with limited mobility might be allowed some extra time in getting from one class to another. More recently, many universities have expanded accommodations to cover conditions that might have been ignored in the recent past: today, students who can document Attention Deficit Disorder are routinely offered extra time in taking exams.

One example of the rapidly changing institutional culture regarding students with disabilities is a new service provided by Blackboard, which is perhaps the most common software platform in American colleges for delivering course content. Through Blackboard, professors post required readings and assignments, grade student work, and even facilitate online discussions among members of the class. This fall, the university at which I teach implemented an additional service offered by Blackboard that is called “Ally.” Blackboard Ally is a tool built into the software that alerts the professor in the case that any material posted for the course may be less than perfectly “accessible” for students. Next to each document posted for the course, a small gauge or dial is shown: colored green, yellow, or red, the software judges the “accessibility” of each file. I post mostly Microsoft Word documents and .pdf files for my courses: sometimes these would be deemed green, sometimes red. As I don’t have the technical knowledge to know which disability my Word files are disadvantaging (or the time or knowledge to make them more “accessible”) I generally ignore the feedback from Blackboard Ally.

But my university made it clear that they expect full compliance from faculty. They rolled out a campaign stating that “Green is the goal!” In other words, all material posted for classes should have a green dial. The very name of Blackboard Ally exerts a kind of rhetorical force that demands compliance. Most Americans under 40 associate the word ally with the LGBT movement (the Second World War might as well have occurred in the Dark Ages). In LGBT discourse, to be an ally is to offer an affirmation of the LGBT community and criticism of the marginalization of its members. Of course, given the far-left culture on campus, to be anything other than an ally is to be aligned with the power of hate and bigotry—something that ensures exile from the university community. No one on campus wants to not be an ally. And so, we see the aggression in Blackboard’s gambit: to resist Blackboard Ally is to be a hater.

Ableism and the Inclusion Agenda

As a professor, I am generally happy to provide reasonable accommodations to students in need. I agree that it is important to make the university as “inclusive” as possible, assuming that the accommodations in question don’t undermine the university in fulfilling its larger objectives: providing excellent education and producing new knowledge in a context that holds high standards for both student and faculty achievement. Unfortunately, readers who are familiar with campus nuttiness like safe zones, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and the ongoing Title IX racket, will not be surprised to learn that many of the standards that remain in higher education are now being sacrificed on the altar of “accessibility.”

The list of “disabilities” that warrant accommodations continues to expand and now the sheer number of students seeking these course adjustments is so high that many voices in the faculty and administration are calling for a radical reimagining of the process for determining which conditions warrant accommodation and what accommodations will be made. In the name of fighting “ableism,” ideologues are pushing for new institutional procedures that undermine the universities’ pursuit of intellectual excellence. In large part, this is a purposeful attack: at the conceptual level, excellence and competence are increasingly understood as by-products of unearned privilege and the marginalization of historically oppressed groups.

Before providing further examples of how this agenda is advanced through campus initiatives, a few words on “ableism” and “accessibility” are in order. The former is a term that was invented to advance a criticism of standards that some allege to be overly demanding. Not coincidentally, “ableism” echoes all the other “-isms” we are told are so pervasive in American society: racism, sexism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, and so on. Anti-ableism activists assert that our society and institutions are structured in ways that privilege those without disabilities. They argue that our professional and public lives are easier to navigate if one is able-bodied and of sound mind. And that is undeniable: life is easier for able-bodied people. The anti-ableist reasoning says that the advantages of the able-bodied are unfair. Perhaps that is true: in some cosmic sense, it is unfair that one might be born with epilepsy or with a club foot. But it is here that the anti-ableist goes a step further. Many people would argue that life is harder for people with disabilities, and that is perhaps unfair, but they would also recognize that life is unfair and that there are limitations to the ways that society can ameliorate the difficulties faced by the disabled. In contrast, the anti-ableist argues that the parts of society that are still easier for the able-bodied person must be re-structured. They aren’t talking about installing ramps for wheelchairs to provide access to public buildings.

“Accessibility,” as defined by campus activists, is a consideration of the relative ease or difficulty of completing tasks and achieving goals. Thus, if one’s Attention Deficit Disorder ensures that a student misses critical information during lecture that will later appear on an exam, the professor must find alternate means of delivering that information. Otherwise, the course would be deemed “inaccessible,” which in the highly ideological prism of campus politics is tantamount to saying that the course is a form of oppression that accords “privilege” to the students without disabilities. Never mind that as a professor, I have no way of knowing which information a student may have missed. Traditionally, questions from students during class would be an indirect way of assessing their grasp of course content. But now, the onus increasingly lies with the professor to discern the ways that the course design is disadvantaging students. Further, the traditional, direct means of assessing student mastery of course content—exams—are increasingly understood as a way of maintaining privilege and enacting bias. Imagine the task the instructor is now burdened with to achieve an “accessible” class environment: not only must one be aware of the broadening range of “disabilities” that are possible, one must know how to identify them all and recognize the ways that the course structure limits each student’s potential for success.

Accessibility, in the traditional sense, is a virtue to which a democratic, pluralistic society should aspire. But taken to an extreme—an explicit attempt to re-design institutional procedures and culture at large in such a way that a person with any limiting condition faces no additional challenge—accessibility represents an aggressive pursuit of a perfect equality of outcome. In this ideal world, not only can everyone succeed, everyone will succeed: any failure to meet a goal can conceivably be due to some unfair disadvantage (diagnosed or otherwise). The world imagined by anti-ableists is one in which everyone achieves excellence in all competitive pursuits. And of course, if everyone is excellent, then no one is.

Institutionalizing Mediocrity

As it stands currently, the typical process for accommodating students with disabilities goes something like this: in the first weeks of the semester, the student notifies the Office of Disability Services that he needs adjustments to a course’s requirements due to a disability. After providing medical documentation of the condition in question, the university determines whether and which accommodations must be made to a course in order to give the student a fair chance at success. The professor is then informed of which adjustments he should make in order to accommodate the student. Although this system is not without problems, in general it is a fair and vital service for students. Nevertheless, there are signs that this process will soon undergo a radical revision, in much the same way that Title IX was recently weaponized to advance ideological commitments.

At our annual faculty meeting to begin the fall semester, my university sent representatives from the Office of Disability Services to emphasize the importance of satisfying Blackboard Ally’s preferences for the accessibility of course materials. As part of the presentation, we were shown the following image, which some readers may have seen circulating online:

With the image displayed on the whiteboard, the presenter explained to us that equity is the goal of Blackboard Ally, and proceeded to tell us that if a course requirement can be modified to make it easier for a person with a particular disability to achieve, the adjustment should be made—whether or not there is a student with that disability in the course. Further, we were warned that if any assignments or course requirements could not be adapted to make them achievable and accessible for people with a(ny) disability, then the instructor should not have that requirement or give that assignment. As an example of how far-reaching these new guidelines would be if fully implemented, I am aware of an art instructor who tests students on their abilities to discern certain shades and tints of color. Obviously, this task can’t really be adapted for a person who is colorblind. Thus, such an assignment would now be evidence that the course is an inaccessible one—even if no one in the course is colorblind.

In a sane educational environment, we would still teach and require art students to master the subtle variations in color schemes, and if a colorblind student were to take the course, we would offer a different assignment so that the student need not forfeit the credit this component of the course. The new order advanced by Blackboard Ally would ultimately render the current procedure for addressing disabilities obsolete: if everything in the course is designed so that no one with any disability would face any difficulty in achieving success, then disabled students would no longer need to offer medical documentation of disabilities and negotiate accommodations with professors. That scenario—where every possible need is fully anticipated and fully accommodated—is precisely what anti-ableists imagine when they envision the fully “accessible” society.

When the presenter completed her presentation, faculty were allowed to ask questions. It was heartening that as my colleagues began to grasp the scope of these new guidelines, quite a few voiced some resistance. I joined in to ask a question of my own. Pointing at the image above, I said “I notice that there aren’t any visible adjustments made in the baseball game the boys are watching. Presumably, some players are taller than others. Why aren’t the shorter ones on boxes? What about the ones who are slower than the others? How will we ensure that the batters with more upper body strength don’t have an advantage? Could you talk a little about why there are no adjustments on the field?” We live in Houston, and the town loves Jose Altuve, the diminutive slugger for the Astros. I continued: “Why doesn’t Altuve get to stand on a box?”

Surprisingly, the speaker didn’t understand what I was getting at—she literally didn’t understand the question, so I stopped pushing because I’m sure the answer would have been as troubling as the picture itself. But to answer it accurately would illuminate some troubling assumptions at work in higher education. The athletes don’t get these accommodations because the game they play is a competitive one. The team that can maximize their strengths and abilities wins the game. We wouldn’t want to achieve equity and accessibility in sports, even if we could: every game would end in a tie. And while it’s true that in such a scenario every player would get to raise a trophy at the end of the season, what is lost? In a word, excellence. For thousands of years, humans have devised contests that require the demonstration of excellence. Excellence and striving are what make victory and achievement meaningful, and in failure, it is the pursuit of excellence that allows a loser to maintain some nobility in defeat.

In telling professors that we need to meet the vision of equity as demonstrated in the picture above, universities indicate that they understand academics not as a competitive pursuit of excellence, but rather as a kind of spectatorship, and perhaps, as entertainment. In contrast to the activity of the players on the field, our students passively watch their “education” unfold. If the new vision of accessibility continues to gain ground, no student will have to worry about the prospect of failure: total accessibility means universal success. But the success that is “won” is one defined by a perfect mediocrity—an outcome that critics of democracy have lamented for time immemorial.

A few tragic outcomes can extend from this type of “achievement.” First, truly excellent students understand that their accomplishment isn’t terribly meaningful. They know they never got to achieve excellence; not because they can’t achieve it, but because they weren’t allowed to: the entire curriculum was designed to mitigate against any skill or acumen that might “privilege” them over their peers. Indeed, many weaker students who “succeed” are also aware of the mediocrity of collegiate study, ensuring that they value their achievement less. But the worst possibility is that mediocre students who “succeed” assume that their success indicates their excellence: an obliviousness to one’s own limitations can come with bitter consequences. Ultimately, such students are deprived of confronting what they do not know—they remain unaware of their ignorance, and thus, see no reason to strive for personal improvement. The fact that universities today seem to view education as more akin to watching a baseball game than participating in a competitive athletic competition is a great loss for our society. It’s heartbreaking: we have less respect for our work than our games.

Celebrating and Erasing Diversity

Blackboard Ally may seem a pretty thin reed to support the claim that accessibility and inclusivity are a threat to American universities and society at large. But don’t be fooled: there are many initiatives being advanced at all levels of the university—administration, staff, faculty, and students—that aim at ensuring universal access, universal success, and universal mediocrity. This past semester I observed the presentation of a graduate student who was being considered for a professorship. Her presentation was on “neurodiversity” in students and how to accommodate it in educational settings. By “neurodiversity,” she referred to conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.

As her presentation unfolded, it became clear that all of these require some preemptive accommodation. For example, she suggested that students with disabilities shouldn’t be required to offer medical documentation because not everyone has equal access to healthcare. Further, instructors should make class more accessible by not penalizing students for regularly being late to class: anxiety disorders may require some students to take a circuitous route to class to avoid crowds. Never mind that late arrivals distract everyone in the class, and never mind that looking the other way on regular tardiness sends a message to other students that class simply isn’t that important. As an aside, the presenter lamented that Google Maps undermines “neurodiversity” because it gives you routes that assume that you want to know the fastest way from one place to another (after all, a person with anxiety may prefer a less direct route). One is left to wonder: what would Google Maps look like if it were built without the assumption that users primarily value time efficiency in considering how to move about space?

On the whole, the term neurodiversity nicely indicates the mediocrity that advocates of radical accessibility pursue. It recognizes that people have cognitive differences, but in trying to accommodate difference they inevitably read difference as disability that requires totalizing adjustments. This denigrates the potential of people who face various challenges—it handicaps their chances at true excellence. In the end, difference is all there is. Insofar as anyone is an “individual” at all, we all have differences and limitations with which we must contend. But as ideology, radical inclusivity fetishizes these endless differences. Differences that benefit the individual (beauty, intelligence, wealth, initiative) can only be understood as unfair privileges, while differences that do not redound to the individual’s benefit can only be made into disabilities which ultimately perpetuate inequity. As is increasingly the case, any inequity is evidence of injustice. And injustice must be met with accommodation to mitigate the effects of individual differences, which are crassly simplified as unearned privilege or the residue of oppression. Ironically, the intervention to address these differences is a sweeping attempt to manufacture universal success—a success without dignity or excellence, a success that ultimately negates individual differences rather than affirms them. Thus, the advocates of accessibility celebrate diversity as they erase it.

 

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor specializing in rhetoric and public discourse at the University of Houston—Downtown. He is a member of Heterodox Academy. This spring, Penn State University Press releases his new book Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self. You can contact him at adamellwanger@gmail.com

Featured image from BCCampus_News (Flickr)

Comments

  1. It’s things like this that remind me of Evan Sayet’s assertion that for these people, rational and moral thought is an act of bigotry, as it requires discrimination – and at the center of their philosophy is the proposition that discrimination of any sort is an unqualified evil.

  2. This past semester I observed the presentation of a graduate student who was being considered for a professorship. Her presentation was on “neurodiversity” in students and how to accommodate it in educational settings. By “neurodiversity,” she referred to conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.

    But not sub-normal intelligence? Someone should have called her out on that.

  3. Except, these people discriminate all the time. And so that can’t be the center of their philosophy.

    Discrimination is an unqualified good, just as long as it’s against the ‘right’ sort of people.

  4. I had hoped, by now, to see “smart firms” in the West returning to an old tradition of taking on apprentices at age 14 or 15 and educating them in-house so that by the time the kids reach the age of 20, they’re doing some genuinely productive work and making decent money.

  5. I never said they weren’t hypocrites. And Sayet goes on to say that their pained, obsessive avoidance of rational discrimination results in a wholly inverted irrational discrimination – they inevitably choose evil over good, wrong over right, and the behaviors that lead to failure over those that result in success.

  6. Interesting. Here in Australia the institutionalisation of mediocrity is coming less from accommodating the disabled, and more from accommodating second-tier foreign students. Some are brilliant and have come to extend themselves, but some have come because they scored well enough to go to the Guanzhong Provincial Technical College, but not Beijing University, however their parents are rich so they can go to Monash University instead. Rich and dumb.

    They’re full fee-paying, and the uni has a lot of them and is known internationally as a University With International Demand and Renown, if they get known for failing them then they’ll stop wanting to come. So… pass them.

    Another aspect is sheer numbers. In Australia in 1969 we had 90,000 uni students among 12 million people. By 2019 it was 1.4 million students among 25 million people. Are they really going to have as high standards with so many more people? It’s like the DPRK naming 1/4 their military “special forces.”

    A just society is inclusive. Excellence is exclusive. It’s a tough balance.

  7. May I recommend that people search for a short story by Kurt Vonnegut entitled “Harrison Bergeron”. It is from 1961 and suggests that things may not have changed so much since then.
    The university system appears broken. Professor Peterson is reported to be working on an alternative . Let’s hope he can gather like minded persons to resist the current madness.

  8. What about those who thrive best as students when placed in highly focused, traditional, and competitive academic settings? Shouldn’t the need for a disciplined environment, as well as an expectation of self discipline, count as as a certain kind of disability in itself in this age of anything-goes, and hence be catered to by specialized educational institutions? Asking for a friend, of course…

  9. Too many people have degrees, anyway.

    I once dated a woman who had left school at 17 and become a bank teller. Within 3 years they wanted to put her on the fast track to management, but she wanted to travel the world with her sister. She came back to the country, started a science degree, and during that tried to get casual bank teller work.

    They wouldn’t take her. Over those 5-6 years they’d gone from taking school leavers to requiring a Bachelor of Commerce. The job hadn’t actually changed, it was just that more people had a degree, so when they got 100 resumes the first thing they did was toss out the 80 without degrees. Now it’d be 80 with degrees, so they’ll want a masters… Really? To be a bank teller?

    It’s the same people going to be bank tellers, they just make them wait 3-4 years and write a lot of essays and do a lot of tests, first. Guess what, not all of these people will be brilliant.

    You want to raise standards at university? Halve the number of student places.

  10. The costs of the “bloated bureaucracy” are found in administration structures that have nothing to do with education and more to do with the self maintenance of 6 figure salaries. For an amusing take on this the “Peter Principle” is a good read.

  11. Is that in dispute? It seems to me that what is in dispute is whether or not they should (‘should’ vs. ‘can’) exercise disciplinary power in a way that violates normal fairness. It seems that when it comes to the sexual Terror, it really is ‘guilty until proven innocent’ or even just ‘guilty when accused’.

    Indeed, but there is logical problem here: Real sexual assault is a serious crime but an unwanted smile can now be considered sexual assault on campus, yet if that is really sexual assault then surely the police must be called as they would be called for a murder, no? But they are not called and that’s because no crime has been committed really. But the inquisitors still want to have some fun with the accused, possibly ruining his life, as though he had committed some real crime.

    Except that conservatives normally want the right to engage is certain activities in such a way that no one else is forced to alter their own beliefs or activities whereas Victims tend to want to prohibit the former while enforcing behaviors on everyone else.

    True, but again the question is what is reasonable. Supposing I decide that all universities must be dolphin-accessible and all course activities be dolphin-friendly? You don’t suffer from monkey-privilege do you?

    Good Morning Jer:

    Nice to have you and Jack on the case, two reasonable lefties. Sorry but much of what is being graduated these days is dreadful. I’m a math tutor and I see grade 12 graduates who are trying to advance their education, but who can’t count. As I said on another thread, my niece recently got a job at a law firm on the strength of the fact that she can read and write literate English.

    A cousin’s of mine’s husband is a teacher and he’s just trying to stay alive until he can retire. Classroom discipline is now nil. Even if most of the kids might behave most of the time if they feel like it, there are always the ‘integrated’ HADD and ADHD and ADDAD kids who make it impossible to teach anything. The kids in high school around here consider it to be a drop-in center, not much more.

    What about that Jer? Should folks just be able to declare that they are ADHAD and then require the course to be ‘accessible’ to them? What if they are just retarded? Surely it is unavoidable that if all courses are ‘accessible’ to any and every mental defect then even teaching people how to tie their shoes becomes impossible?

  12. Sorry Jack, but that is a strawman. In general, what is asked for is lack of interference, equal rights for all, and fair rules that are blind. Not special rights as many other groups are demanding.

  13. But to be fair that is the very fringe. Mind, one could say that it’s the fringe of progressives who picket Jordan Peterson events and march outside churches wearing LGBTQWTF regalia. To be honest tho, would you not admit that your basic progressive believes it is proper to shut down people they don’t agree with whereas the average conservative believes that everyone should have the right to their opinion? Where conservatives often believe they can interfere with another person, as you mentioned, is abortion and that’s because they value the life of the innocent baby.

    I’m afraid I am getting real. Lefties are always mocking conservatives for their hysteria and then five years latter the hysterical prediction comes true. Niece of mine just dropped out of uni, she signed up for a course in early childhood education. Guess what the course was about? White guilt. In the first semester there was not one single mention of early childhood education, only First Nations oppression. Her first assignment was to write her personal apology for her whiteness and her privilege and her oppressions. At this stage, being white might not be a felony but it is already a misdemeanor. You’re an educator how does this strike you? @jerjapan might have something to say about it too.

    As for the genuinely disabled, well of course reasonable accommodations should be made. But what we see in this article is things getting to the point where excellence is forbidden.

  14. Thank you as well. I agree with much of what you said.

    I certainly agree that some people need more support than others, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you say “due to circumstance.” A gay kid could be more privileged than a straight kid if he occupies an uber progressive circle where he receives undue adulation or deference for his orientation. Or he could be less privileged if he gets bullied for it. What I don’t like about intersectionality is that it always assumes privilege is stagnant, computable from demographics alone, rather than from circumstance.

    Yes, the number, specifically because many of those think their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ect is sufficient for them to be classified as victims, even if the extent of their victimization would make an impartial observer roll their eyes.

    Your examples are horrible instances of disprivilege, but I wouldn’t say they are caused by oppression. From an intersectionality lens (based on the article) they wouldn’t register because they aren’t about demographics and oppression. (Except maybe schizophrenia and ableism.)

    I agree that class is a vital dimension, but I have to assume your circle is less toxic than normal, because what I see in social and traditional media is a focus on immutable characteristics. Indeed, that’s the premise of the article you linked to: being desperately poor is no excuse to claim greater victimhood than someone from a racial or sexual minority.

    I’m sure many normal progressives are motivated by what they think of as good intentions, but the animosity towards white people can get quite viscious. Maybe it doesn’t go further than that, but leftists do tend to state a restructuring of society is their goal.

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