markus-spiske-i_dt4tsexd8-unsplash-683x1024.jpgMany of us don not realize that the University—the institution, that is—was developed alongside the Hospital, the Insane Asylum and the Prison, as part of nation-building processes across the Americas, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Together these institutions provided a way of separating the population into categories that met the needs of a society that was struggling to develop its economy as it engaged, increasingly, in global transactions. So, if the hospital provided a house for our sick, and the prison a reformatory for our criminals—for those who misstepped, who acted out of place; and while the insane asylum and the hospital together isolated the sick, the university nurtured the gifted and the intelectual, and was a place for growth and learning, but only the able body and mind. Today, these institutions remain tightly bound together and give form to many of the values that shape our society. It is no coincidence that social and political models of power and success are imagined around our community’s education level, our forward thinking and our ability to succeed; or our economy determined by its strength, stamina and stability. Communities marginalized by their race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality, those folks deemed undesirable, are overwhelmingly understood as sick and feeble, childish or beastly, backward or underdeveloped. Although marginal lifestyles can produce disability through prolonged and routine suffering—long work hours, little rest, poor diet all contribute— but we know now that such hardship is produced as well and is a product of the institutionalized separating-out of society put into place by the Prison, the Hospital, the Insane Asylum, and by the University.

I am a disabled professor who does research on equally disabled communities who belong to, so-called underdeveloped worlds. Many of my students are also disabled—either by a physical or mental condition or by an identity they claim. Together we struggle to make a place for ourselves at an institution that was not designed for us. In fact, our place within it, and trajectory through it often is disabling in and of itself. We are not fast in our learning, or our travels across campus. We need more time to learn how to learn, to complete what we need to progress, and to find and request the help and support we need, and to decide if we need it. But time is money, and for the disabled, money is debt, and debt is crippling.

On campus, and in the classroom, often in the chatter that comes before, or right after a professor’s lecture, something happens that is worthwhile. Here, experiences are shared and ideas are circulated around what it means to be disabled, about how our lives outside influence and determine how we engage with material in class, and how this helps to understand what it means to not understand, to fail. Here, like few other places, disability defines a common ground and creates a safe space for us to discuss the opposite of success, progress and 4 year graduation plans that leave no room for error. Our disability—thought broadly–represents for many of my students, and for me as well, a world view that incorporates second (and third) tries, repetition, circling back on new ideas to get them right–to help us understand. Disabled folk have a close connection with “not knowing”, “not understanding”, “not being able to (yet),” and with the struggles of learning that characterize a large part of our experiences in higher education, and within universities across the globe. And yet, the University is not designed for us. It should be.

About the Author

Matthew Edwards, PhD. – Associate Professor of Spanish, Associate Faculty of Latinx and Latin American Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies