Making Space for Unwellness, Crip Time, and Carework: Resources and Tools for Building Accessibility and Mutual Aid Into the Classroom
by Maggie Rosenau (CU Denver & CU Boulder)
In anticipation of this year’s DDGC conference, “Creating Just Outcomes and Assessments, Together,” we (the DDGC Mutual Aid Network) wanted to begin the new year by reflecting on current conversations around academic ableism and disability justice and share a few resources for building accessibility and mutual aid into the classroom for this spring semester.
In their November 2022 keynote for the Disability Symposium hosted by the University of Colorado Denver, disability justice activist, professor, lawyer, and politician, Lydia X. Z. Brown, opened with the following:
“We are almost 3 years into the COVID-19 pandemic. Three years. And during that time, each and every one of us has carried the weight of expectation that we perform wellness, functionality, productivity, industriousness, and all of the trappings of able normativity. That is—the expectation that we live and move through the world as if we are not affected by illness, by injury, by disability, or by trauma. The expectation that the way we work, the pace at which we work, how we relate to the work that we do, how we exist in public and shared spaces, as people, as neighbors, as students, as teachers, as professionals, must be marked by a constant performance of doing enough, appearing to be functional enough, meeting deadlines, having the right attitude, embracing this nebulous idea of what constitutes normal, at least as defined by abled people—certainly not by sick and Mad and neurodivergent and disabled people.”
Brown’s powerful acknowledgement of the demanding and debilitating effects of our present, profit-driven reality serves as a balm of sorts. And it is an introduction that opens up into a long conversation for folx to learn, as well as experience and process a combination of feelings such as affirmation, mourning, rage, and empowerment.
Brown’s talk offers so many things. Importantly, it puts various aspects of disabling conditions (both current and historical) into perspective for us by unpacking the structural, systemic, and institutional oppression that is ableism. To be sure, recognizing ableism is the first step toward disability justice. Brown reminds us how “we do not tend to think about the impact of constant exposure to a lifetime of racism or antisemitism or anti-trans oppression as contributing to and exacerbating experiences of disability.” And Brown’s declaration (in their keynote) is followed by the sharing of resources and strategic, direct action necessary to advance equality and justice. You can watch the entire keynote and workshop that followed, here (HIGHLY recommended):
We at the DDGC Mutual Aid Network feel empowered by Brown’s teachings and want to continue the conversation and share even more resources among our communities. After all, ours is a pressing time to do so.
In summer 2020—around the height of the BLM uprising and COVID lockdowns—the US celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the American Disability Act. Historians and disabled elders retold stories of solidarity between Civil Rights leaders and Disability Rights activists, detailing collective action that took place beyond popular references to how the Black Panther Party provided food, daily, to participants of the 504 Sit-In. And as Black disability activists were already flagging COVID as a mass disabling event, it was a powerful time to be reminded that liberation must be intersectional and collective.
Indeed, it seemed like--for a while, at least—more people started to pay attention to and value disabled knowledge, as COVID prompted a broad public sharing (and acknowledgment) of collective experiences and tools:
Yet sadly, centering the experiences, knowledge, and needs of the most vulnerable in our communities has severely dwindled. 2022 started off with the Center for Disease Control director, Rochelle Walensky, stating how she was “encouraged” that the majority COVID deaths occurred among disabled people. Mask mandates were lifted, even though wearing one is an equity issue. With the return of in-person events, conferences are no longer safe and accessible for sick, disabled, and underemployed scholars (however, this year’s BGHRA and DDGC conferences are, again, fully remote and free). And as 2022 came to a close, some say it was the year in which we learned that progressive politics end where disability justice begins.
The trauma around losing loved ones, being hospitalized and now navigating long-Covid, navigating a rotten economy alongside our loss and grieving, the rise in antisemitic, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous, anti-Brown racism, the rise in anti-queer and trans hate crimes, eugenics and white supremacy, and the need to diligently self-protect in spaces where collective care has been completely abandoned (which are most all public spaces) contributes to and further compounds current disabling conditions and experiences. Providing some demographic data, Brown informs us that disabled people are already more likely to be(come):
In their workshop, Brown proclaims, “whether or not you personally have a disability, our students and colleagues who do are disproportionately more likely to be affected by these realities. To be a disabled person living in a profoundly ableist society means that we are constantly met with disbelief, with invalidation, with delegitimization, with deprivation, with neglect, and with exploitation at every possible turn.” And these realities make it even more difficult for disabled people to do certain things and gain equitable access at work and in classes in our academic spaces.
Because ableism is just as prevalent as other forms of oppression in the university, supporting our disabled community members is necessary to our work and commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Important steps toward an inclusive pedagogy of care include believing our students, eliminating gatekeeping, and building access into our teaching via multimodality, flexibility, and adaptability. Brown charges us to “trust our students. Believe our students. So much of academia is built upon the logics of surveillance and carcerality. It is built upon the belief that if we’re not micro-managing, we can’t trust people to do their work or be productive—that we have to ensure that people have to have a really true legitimate reason to ask for an extension, or to ask for flexibility on an assignment … Students have been met with punitive reactions and presumptive disbelief and skepticism for their entire academic career” (emphasis mine).
So, instead of performing wellness and expecting able normativity, let’s make space for unwellness. Let us expect to operate on Crip time—at least some, if not most, of 2023. Let’s expect everyone to build sick and mental health days for themselves into their courses when they need them. Let’s expect the need to employ new, creative ways to measure attendance and participation, and offer flexibility around deadlines in our courses. Let’s not require documentation from students to provide accommodations, but instead build access and flexibility in at the beginning. Let’s expect that care work can be joyful and fun. Let’s invite our sick, Mad, neurodivergent, disabled, and non-disabled students to create radical forms of mutual aid in the classroom so that conditions for co-learning are strengthened. Let’s also invite them to self-grade based on their own learning goals. And let’s believe in and make more accessible worlds.
Already, so many of us are engaged in these meaningful and transformative practices. And over the past year or so, various strategies and creative structures have been collected from colleagues who have shared them publicly.
I have created this Resource Page, which includes information about disability justice, sections on digital accessibility, alternative assessments, and care pedagogy, and a collection of “required reading.” We at the DDGC Mutual Aid Network hope you find at least a few useful tools here as you prepare your courses for the next term. Conversely, we hope you are similarly empowered to join in (or further strengthen) the creative work toward building a more accessible present and hopeful future.
And, if you do not already, please do consider following, reading, and learning from:
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