She walked into the classroom, prepared to take her exam, when she noticed the chair behind her desk was not conducive to her scoliosis. Sitting in a chair for long periods of time hurts her back, so she requested a different one.
She kept her head down to avoid any unwanted attention, but her classmates began to comment.
“I don’t want people to come up and ask anything, and lo and behold I get people coming up and saying ‘Oh, look at you and your special privileges,’” said Nicole Agaronnik ’19. “I’m about to take a test, I don’t need to be disclosing about my disability.”
This example of ableism — the discrimination against people with disabilities — does not come as a surprise to many disabled students on campus. According to Student Disability Services, approximately 1,450 students registered as having a disability and/or as needing accommodations due to a disability in the 2015 to 2016 school year.
Student Disability Services defines a person with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment and is regarded as having such an impairment. For many of these students, ableism is rampant both in and out of the classroom.
When asked if he has experienced ableism on campus, Jonathan Goldstein ’17, the three-year president of Cornell Union for Disability Awareness, answered emphatically, “Yes, most definitely.”
“Speaking candidly, ableism is something I experience quite frequently,” he said. “I personally receive extended time for exams as one of my accommodations, and I’ve had some faculty who’ve said things like, do you really need that? Or, maybe you’ll get a higher score because you have more time. I’ve had people who’ve said things like, are you trying to ‘game the system’?”
But many believe the grip of ableism on society extends far beyond Cornell’s classrooms.
Last year, Cornell participated in an Association of American Universities report called the “Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.” According to the report, students who reported having a disability have been sexually assaulted at a rate that was more than twice as high as those who did not have a disability.
Though Agaronnik, a CUDA board member, acknowledged that she cannot “speak for all people with disabilities,” she indicated the negative effect of ableism on her and her peers.
“I think that to begin with, a lot of people don’t even know what ableism itself is,” she said. “It impacts people with disabilities as much as racism or sexism impact people of different groups. It’s definitely frustrating that the basic definition doesn’t exist in the minds of people.”
Goldstein noted that ableism is “institutionalized” within the Cornell community.
“Disability is often viewed by most people in society through a medical model, which means you’re looking at disability from the lens of a personal problem,” he said. “The question becomes how do we fix this person? As opposed to, how can we fix society and work to change our perspectives and environments … Many people have never heard the term ableism before.”
Cornell and the Americans with Disabilities Act
There are 10 Americans with Disabilities Act centers around the country, and Cornell houses one of them. This little known fact is “the best kept secret on campus,” said Angela Winfield ’08, law.
“[The centers] serve a lot of private sector companies, a lot of agencies, a lot of individuals in their region, which is New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Winfield said.
Known as the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, the ADA center, located on the Cornell campus, aims to promote equal opportunity for people with disabilities through federally and state funded projects, according to its website.
With one focus on employment, the Yang-Tan Institute reports that the employment rate for people with disabilities is only 34.6 percent, and an estimated 31.9 percent of people with disabilities are living below the poverty line.
Winfield, the former Program Manager for the Northeast ADA Center, is trying to change all of that. As the current director of Inclusion in Workforce Diversity at Cornell, Winfield monitors the University’s employment diversity.
“We have this mission-based goal, any person any study, which is a really nice platitude and it’s what we were founded on,” she said. “How do we actually make sure that we’re living that out in our policies and practices?”
But when benefits are offered, many people with disabilities still do not access them. This deficiency is due to a prevalent reluctance among students and employees to self-identify within the community, according to Winfield and Goldstein.
“A lot of people have asked, ‘why would I self-identify? What’s in it for me?’ I think that’s one of the challenges around disability,” Winfield said. “Once you’re in the workforce, it becomes about, ‘I don’t want people to think I can’t do my job’… They don’t have a good reason for feeling that [having a disability] is valued yet.”
Goldstein also noted the problematic tendency for students with disabilities not to register with SDS, noting that they may decline “because they do not personally require an accommodation,” or because they “don’t feel comfortable with the social stigma of ‘disability identity.’”
Even Goldstein was hesitant to self-identify, saying he originally had no desire to disclose his disability at all.
“Part of what was cathartic for me was recognizing that sharing my experience didn’t need to be a negative thing,” he said. “Nobody should feel that their experience on this campus is isolated in an already competitive environment.”
Agaronnik described her experience of self-identifying as a sort of “coming out.”
“This is who I am,” she said. “I’m not here in spite of it, I’m here because of it.”
Where do we go from here?
So what do diversity, inclusion and accessibility really mean, and how can Cornell progress?
“The inclusion piece, I think, is the harder piece, and that’s the culture work,” Winfield said. Quoting attorney Verna Myers, Winfield added that “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Agaronnik takes this phrase literally. As a wheelchair ballroom dance instructor, Agaronnik first joined CUDA with the intention of bringing the art to Cornell.
“To me, teaching wheelchair ballroom is a lot more meaningful than just teaching dance, because I can relate to that experience of enjoying the beauty of dance and realizing that your disability or whatever you might have doesn’t affect how good of a dancer you can become,” she said.
Agaronnik recently arranged a wheelchair ballroom dance at Willard Straight Hall called “Ballroom for Everyone: Celebrating Diversity Through Dance.” The event was meant to stimulate a dialogue about disability, social justice and the arts with wheelchair ballroom showcases and tutorials, according to Agaronnik.
Yet even at an overwhelmingly positive event, Agaronnik noticed elements of exclusivity.
“We weren’t symbolically trying to teach this to promote inclusivity. No, we were teaching because there’s a seated participant who wants to dance, too,” she said in response to comments made about the event. “Even if there’s one person [sitting] participating in that crowd, that still means that it is your responsibility to welcome them into the class to participate just like all of the other standing participants.”
There is a lack of support for disabled students from the University at large, according to Goldstein. Unlike other minority groups, the disability community does not have an associated major or minor. Although there is a disability studies sequence in ILR, Goldstein characterized it as just a “loose conglomeration” of ILR classes.
“We have Viking Studies before Disability Studies,” he said. “While I think vikings are awesome, we have been pushing for Disability Studies for a long time.”
However, Goldstein’s biggest push is not for a disability-related academic track, but a resource center.
“The biggest thing is, we are the only social identity group on campus that does not have access to a cultural resource center,” he said.
Although he acknowledged the “great work and dedication” of the SDS, Goldstein argued that the organization is insufficient in providing support for students on campus and said its upcoming move to Gannett only further emphasizes the medical model of disability.
“[The SDS is] trying to figure out what they can do within the university framework to help students pursue reasonable accommodations,” he said.
Agaronnik added that a resource center is especially important for a minority group laden with so many stigmas.
“You kind of have to have a bit of disability pride to engage with the disability community,” she said. “Having a physical space is important for this kind of experience.”
When asked what students can do on a more personal level to minimize ableism on campus, Winfield said awareness is key.
“You may think that it doesn’t affect you, but disability is the one category of diversity that you can join, and that’s very real for people,” she said. “We should be accessible because it’s the right thing to do.”
Though Agaronnik often becomes frustrated with micro-aggressions and subtleties that frequent the lives of people with disabilities, she said she tries to keep her eye on the bigger picture.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about quality of life,” she said. “We need to keep that at the forefront.”