We have an activist student body on campus. Yalies, by and large, are incredibly passionate, curious and engaged with their community. When our administration drags its feet on financial aid or doesn’t invest sufficiently in the cultural houses, we stand up and demand attention. It’s laudable; student activism has made Yale a better place. Without students protesting administrative recalcitrance, the University would be a lot less representative of America and a lot less geared toward the needs and desires of the students it purports to serve. But there is one area where we’ve been far too quiet for far too long. I’m talking about resources to support students with physical disabilities.
Full disclosure: I’m a sophomore who has been challenged with paraplegia since I was nine years old. I’m wheelchair-bound, so maybe I’m biased writing this column. But one thing I’ve learned from activism at Yale is the need for solidarity. Ultimately, we’re all voiceless in comparison to the Corporation or the administration unless we stand together. We may speak in terms of intersectionality when we discuss privilege, but when it comes to reform, it’s imperative that students primarily focused on Issue X still lend their support to those championing Issue Y and vice versa. We’re all unified in our desire for a more equitable Yale. I’m inspired every time I see the white divestment activist standing in solidarity with minority students in their struggle to get more funding for the cultural centers. Similarly, Yalies from all backgrounds were instrumental in forcing the University to hire additional therapists for Mental Health and Counseling.
But, unlike racial minorities, women or even students who have needed mental health resources, the number of students who are physically disabled doesn’t pass the threshold necessary for campus-wide outrage. I’m not complaining; I don’t think Yalies are apathetic about the challenges I face. But there’s a vast disconnect. Because there are so few students who are physically disabled at Yale relative to virtually any other demographic — I don’t know of more than a handful of students who are physically disabled across the University — it’s unsurprising that most students don’t have significant exposure to our specific challenges or needs. I would guess that nearly everyone at Yale knows someone who is LGBTQ; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if three-quarters of students will have had at least one LGBTQ suitemate over their four years. That means nearly every student at Yale has been exposed to the obstacles facing the LGBTQ community. Consequently, they know how to be a sensitive ally — when should they protest, when should they stay silent and what resources the LGBTQ community still needs. The same could be said for virtually every other historically discriminated group. But too often, I’ve seen people want to help but shy away in fear of coming across as condescending.
So what are we to do when it’s unlikely you’ll become a close friend of someone who is physically disabled? I think that’s where social media can be a game-changer. There are already Facebook groups dedicated to students of color who are confronted with racism at Yale and beyond. I’m not suggesting we necessarily create a Facebook group just to hear me complain about the limited accessibility of our colleges (my particular entryway is the only one in all of Saybrook that can accommodate me) or how even the Yale Daily News’ building doesn’t have an elevator to the second floor.But social media can give a voice to groups that would otherwise be forgotten or isolated in their struggle for equal rights.
But making structural renovations is expensive, and it’s hard for administrators to justify exorbitant costs to enhance the experience of one student who’ll graduate in four or fewer years. A similarly pernicious rationale — we don’t have the money — has been applied when administrators have resisted virtually every other student demand. Our school has an endowment over $25 billion. Yale can, if pushed hard enough and for long enough, make the changes that will quite literally level the playing field. But even beyond whether we have the money (we do), an institution shows its values by its actions and inactions. Schools such as Yale have historically been at the forefront of social change. We pushed for students to perform community service in high school, recruited the best and brightest from some of the poorest pockets of America and insisted on a student body more representative of this country.
Unlike the causes of minorities or LGBTQ students, there will never be a critical number of physically disabled students on campus. If most students only stand up for Issue X once they befriend someone who is affected by it, then we’ll never get substantive reform for physically disabled students. In this case, we’re going to have to do more and we’re going to have to look actively for those who need our help, whether it’s on Facebook or in person. Otherwise we’ll always remain behind.
Benjamin Nadolsky is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .