by Joaquín M. Lara Midkiff, Guest Columnist
Yale as an institution is entering a moment of consequence. The omnipresent health crisis that has derailed business as usual is opening doors for change. And the political and social climate, on and off campus, only intensifies this tumultuous hour. The stakes are high. It is incumbent on us to not let this moment pass by untapped, its momentum unharnessed. Many of us have been privy to, or participants in, the countless conversations that are unfolding around campus surrounding systemic and structural issues like defunding the YPD, relieving Puerto Rican debt, divorcing ourselves from fossil fuels and much more. It is necessary to have these hard and nuanced conversations. The conclusions we draw at this pivotal moment in our institutional history will no less dictate the character of our university for decades to come.
It is a stain on this institution to not rise to the occasion to deal swiftly and substantively with the plight of the disability community.
As a point of history, organized advocacy for and by the disability community is over a quarter of a century behind other marginalized communities. When I worked in immigrant rights advocacy, for example, I was participating in a movement that had a rich and long history. The same cannot be said about disability, especially here on campus. Whereas Yale’s MEChA has existed since 1969, commensurate with the rise of Chicanismo in the 1960s, Disability Empowerment for Yale, or DEFY, was founded only in 2016. The organized undergraduate disability community did not exist until four years ago — 315 years after Yale’s founding.
While I do not find it particularly meaningful or productive to fault the university for everything that was or was not done in the last 300 years, what it does here and now is completely fair game. And the situation for my community is painful, if not dire.
As a person of color living in the United States, my thoughts drift all too easily to “separate but equal,” the abhorrent legal doctrine emblematic of a highly racialized country. “Blacks Need Not Apply” or “Beaners Not Welcome” were signs and sentiments with which some of us could have been confronted a measly 50 years ago. And yet, this university effectively presents my community with corollaries that, while often overlooked, are no less real and deserve no less attention.
For every class that does not have closed captioning or accessible screen reading, we are told that the d/Deaf, Hard of Hearing and visually impaired are not valued. For every meal that the allergy-prone or diet-restricted cannot enjoy on campus, we are told they are not worthy of the effort. For every gate, lift and elevator out of order for the third time in a week or for every shuttle that again fails to deliver me to class, I am reminded of a blunt and underlying truth: “Cripples Not Welcome.”
By the university’s own admission, people with disabilities are twice as likely to suffer interpersonal violence and sexual assault during their time on campus. Buildings are inaccessible. Social life is inaccessible. Dining is inaccessible. Labs are inaccessible. Classes — both online and offline — are too. If I had a dollar for every time someone came to me in my capacity as vice president of DEFY saying that they had dropped a class because an individual professor, course coordinator, Dean or Head of College, or somebody just could not find it within themselves to empower them to succeed academically, I would be rich enough to pay for my four years here upfront and out of pocket.
So, what is the institutional response to these many grievances? An office of Student Accessibility Services (SAS) with a staff of four that is charged with somehow meeting the needs of the 11 percent of the student body that registers with them. Through no fault of their own, they cannot meet the needs of so many, and students inevitably fall through the cracks. From the higher-ups, we are met with shrugs — or worse, we are not given the time of day.
But “don’t worry, accessibility is one of Yale’s key goals,” we are reassured. Somehow, I am not satisfied by such platitudes. And you shouldn’t be either. No matter how much the University claims to provide accessible resources, it fails to deliver on its promises. Faculty are not made aware of the personnel and technology available to them, and it’s the students who are left the poorer.
If such an egregious oversight were being passed over any other marginalized community, all hell would break loose — and for good reason. For reasons that are beyond me — maybe because screen readers and accessible online architecture, working elevators and dining are not super sexy — the oversight persists. But so does the effort to change things.
Believe me, as someone who lives this every day, I understand the difficulty of accessibility. Our community is highly intersectional. But the fact that there are so many qualifiers, creeds and colors that comprise the community is something to be celebrated, not dreaded. The diversity of the community need not translate into ambiguity and institutional lethargy. Moreover, it is precisely because every other community on campus has in it people with disabilities that our struggle ought to be a university-wide effort to seize the moment and effect substantive and lasting change. I implore my university to take action and work with a community that is more than prepared to advance their needs and interests and expand the franchise of an accessible education.
JOAQUÍN M. LARA MIDKIFF is a sophomore in Saybrook College. He is a YCC Senator and Vice President of DEFY. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.