Students are Students, Disabilities or Not

By Evan Dunks ’14

I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I’ve read a good amount of blogs like these. This one is off to a great start, and I wish I had started something like it when I was a student (Class of ’14!). Still, I’m happy I was asked to post here.

I’ve read through everything here, and the entries so far are good, but too familiar. A quick search online and you’ll find countless stories about students who just want to go to class or motivated allies who just want to help those in need. Sure, great goals – but seeing a bunch of repetitions of the same story can obscure the fact that a human with a disability is still a human, with the same spectrum of adventurous, or unique, or ugly, or violent human desires.

I began my UVa career in the fall of 2010, and if we’re going to be honest, I came to party. I didn’t want to learn new subjects or expand my horizons (well, those at least weren’t my primary goals) – I wanted to drink and do drugs. I wanted to go to frats, black out, wake up with a tiger inexplicably in my bedroom, and all the other things that modern culture happily shows as the ‘fun’ part of being a student. I listened to the song I Love College by Asher Roth, and dammit, that’s what I wanted.

But I want this post to be about more than me. I don’t want to tell you “my story,” because I know that some of my experiences are not unique – and I didn’t want them to be. When I started at UVa, my top priority was just being a student, and enjoy all aspects of the “college experience.” People with disabilities can be nice and studious, but if we lose sight of anyone’s humanity, we’re going to do a lot more to make their life a lot worse no matter how hard we try to help.

Obviously, it’s nice when you don’t explicitly hate individuals with disabilities. No one has ever physically attacked me just because of my wheelchair, and unfortunately that probably wouldn’t be the case if I had a different skin color, gender, etc. But there are more ways to discriminate, and having a disability will bring you to the front of the line for soft discrimination.

“You’re so brave!” “You’re an inspiration!” – these are the kind of backhanded compliments I (and probably most people with a disability) hear on a daily basis. Personally, I really don’t care if something I do inspires you. I’m glad for you, but please don’t tell me about it. It doesn’t make me happy to hear that you’re amazed I got out of bed or made lunch or completed a 5K in my wheelchair. Go ahead and feel amazed if you want, but you don’t have to tell me. Just keep moving on with your life.

If you feel like you need to make the University a more inclusive place, remember that students with disabilities are still students. For example, think outside the scope of academic buildings when you prioritize locations you want to make accessible.

A time-honored tradition at UVa, as any student reading this already knows, is streaking the Lawn. We’ve all done it so much that it’s not even necessarily an exciting story if you tell your friends about it. Think about that – running naked down a long field while a lot of people watch isn’t by itself that interesting. If you tried to impress anyone at UVa, everyone else would just nod along, because they’ve also streaked the Lawn at least twice.

But I’ve never heard anyone say that the lawn should be made accessible so that students in wheelchairs can streak the lawn (I mean I made it happen anyways, but it took some friends and some strategic planning). If you laughed just now, honestly ask yourself: Why? Every student does it, and allowing students with disabilities more access to a common tradition is certainly going to expand their opportunities.

Being a Wahoo is more than the classes you go to, or the sports games you cheer at, or the parties you enjoy. It’s a combination of every experience you have for the years you’re here. If you’re going to help expand accessibility on grounds, then you should look at every possible area that could affect student life. And I’m not saying classrooms aren’t on the list of places that should be accessible – they’re of course near the top.

But that list is expansive, and covers a lot of buildings beyond the classroom. Newcomb, Alumni Hall, and most ‘Old Dorms’ come to mind immediately, but it’s been a while since I could last check out specific areas. I’ll be happy as long as accessibility is centered around allowing humans to act like humans. Not inspiring angels who just want to learn, but regular people with a variety of desires that aren’t always admirable or even appropriate to talk about. In the case of the University of Virginia, making the classroom accessible is only part of the job – the student experience as a whole is what needs to be open to everyone.

Evan Dunks, ‘14 is a UVA alumnus who majored in Foreign Affairs. He currently works as a marketing manager for a nonprofit called the Institute for Humane Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

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