I didn’t identify as disabled before I came to Yale. I saw myself as someone who happened to live in inexplicable, often debilitating pain, who happened to restructure his life in order to cope, and who happened to find success despite those major physical barriers. Like so many of my peers, I was accepted into this institution because I told a compelling story: a kid from Montana achieves academic and social success despite tremendous medical challenges. My ability to persevere, to overcome my pain, my disability, and to keep on fighting — that’s what got me here.
Still today, I remain proud of that. I’m proud of who I am — not in spite of, but in conversation with my disability. And yet, I now find myself on a campus where students continuously fail to understand or acknowledge pervasive ableism.
What I didn’t expect when I arrived at Phelps Gate for the first time was to be asked to do more. To overcome much greater obstacles, to persevere longer, to be willing to sacrifice my body, my being, all for the sake of an education and the same narrative of success. I found myself in an environment where my physical problems presented massive limitations, where I felt categorized — “othered”— by the way my body did or didn’t allow me to occupy academic and social spaces. Over the course of my first year, I would learn to call that sense of “otherness” disability.
Disability, like many social categories, is extremely complicated to pin down; there are so many different ways for people to be disabled. Some, like me, face amorphous, often taboo pain syndromes. Others have cognitive disabilities. We can, and rightfully should, even debate abandoning the word “disabled” in search of a less negative way to categorize those who have what American philosopher Elizabeth Barnes referred to as “merely different” bodies.
But as complicated as defining disability may be, one thing remains clear in my mind after my years here at Yale: despite the incredible work of organizations like Disability Empowerment for Yale, the Student Accessibility Services Office, and the Poorvu Center, most Yalies remain either ignorant of or apathetic toward issues of ableism. Which begs the question: why?
One reason is that our society is built on it. We live in a world that prioritizes productivity over perhaps anything else, and we Yale students attend a school that prioritizes it more than almost anywhere else on Earth. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be productive, there is something wrong when the acceptable scope of what counts as productivity becomes so narrow that we devalue anyone who can’t fit the mold. It’s what Virginia Woolf called the “army of the upright,” and all of us here — in some way, shape or form — are marching.
Professors hand out assignments to students without thinking twice about whether or not that pset would be too physically taxing. The YCC puts out an email saying anyone who helps move chairs before Spring Fling can get a free pass without thinking about the many students immediately excluded because they can’t lift a chair in the first place.
Most Yalies never think twice about staying up late, about grinding through a paper, about pushing their bodies to the limit for the sake of their productivity, all the while forgetting that many of us simply can’t. Some of us don’t have the luxury of being able to run to class when we’re late, to abuse our bodies on the weekends, to even lift up a pencil.
This ableism is insidious, and yet rarely intentional or malicious. But it’s present nonetheless. It’s written into our legal systems. It’s apparent in our social customs. It’s inherent in the language we use. It’s the pity with which society views people in wheelchairs. It’s the way we see people with disabilities as a nuisance. It’s the fact that students here who need help don’t seek it because it’s made out to be taboo. At Yale and in society at large, it’s “bad” to be disabled.
But I’m tired of being told by society at large that I’m “bad” simply because of who I am, and I’m tired of the silence. I’m tired of the fact that many students are still punished, both socially and academically, simply for asking for what they need. I’m tired of the fact that the onus is still on us, students with disabilities, to fight tooth and nail for what we deserve: recognition, respect
And while I’m endlessly grateful for those people and groups working tirelessly to create change, it’s time that Yalies at large acknowledge the fact that our default conception of meritocracy is exclusionary for all kinds of people, including people with “merely different” bodies. It’s time to recognize that at Yale, the army of the “upright” marches on.
BRENDAN CAMPBELL is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .