Dwarfism Awareness Point 15) Discrimination, Partie Deux
I’m baaaack, and this time I have wine, so you are in for a show.
We left off with me heading off to my lovely alma mater, the University of Puget Sound (or Pugnut Sound as my dad loves to say). First of all, I have to give kudos to my mom here, because she’s the one who found the school in the first place and dragged me to their booth at the college fair. She had heard about them somewhere or nother (for you, mom) and thought that their attention to students might be just the place for me: a first-generation college student who happened to be disabled. I had my heart set on Boston (ironic now, because that’s where I went to grad school but I had forgotten about this obsession when applying to programs), but mom said, “no, you’ll get lost in a huge university, you need something smaller. Just talk to them.” I think she must have planted some buzz words with the admissions reps because they said everything I wanted to hear: “French… blah blah blah… special French/IR major… blah blah blah… study abroad in France… financial aid.” So, we went for a visit. This was huge. The only other times I had been out of state were for 1) doctor’s visits (woohoo!); 2) a random, and odd family “vacation” in California, where we stayed with relatives, and one of our cousins kept calling us Oakies because we were from Colorado (wha?); 3) an LPA Convention in San Francisco. You can see we didn’t travel much; as true (i.e. multi-generation) Coloradans, our idea of family fun was camping. This trip to Tacoma was new and exciting, and it helped that this was the height of the grunge era (Kurt Cobain’s death was still a fresh wound in my young heart), and Seattle was Mecca. Ok, “Seattle” Tacoma ain’t, but it was fabulous to me, and I did visit the beautiful Emerald City too.
Moving on… we visited. I loved the green campus, the small campus, the old buildings. Idyllic, wonderful, lalala. We met with the Dean of Admissions, and he looked at my test scores, and for the first time in a while said, “you’re a shoe in.” He encouraged me to apply early, and we briefly talked access. He was open and honest, and I felt welcomed. This was one of the best decisions my mom let me think I made. I was asked, yes asked, to join the Honors Program and was invited to live in the Honors House, where I would have to bear the terrible tragedy of having a single room because it was the accessible one. I congressed with more nerds and continued my musical nerdiness and spoke French and was obsessed by French and all things academic. I even had a little fun in there. This school was great for accessibility. They attached a stool to the ATM for me. They made sure some of my favorite cold items from the fridge were accessible to me in the cafeteria. My record was flagged so that when I registered for a class, they knew not to schedule that class in certain inaccessible buildings (still early in ADA, and not all buildings were retrofitted). They gave me priority registration so I could get into the section I needed to make it across campus in time. They consulted me when they renovated the student union building so they could check accessibility. They gave me a special parking pass. Oh, and they even worked extra hard to pair me with a French host family who would take my disability into account.
This was a time for growth for me. I learned to walk into a room and own it, to make my difference secondary. This was a place that believed in my intelligence. Near graduation, my advisor had a heart-to-heart with me after I had been accepted to a few graduate schools with full funding. He said it was never a surprise to him that I had been successful; he knew it would happen the minute I walked in to the room and set him at ease by making a quick short joke and then moving on. He said I got the elephant in the room out of the way and moved on with business. This was the first time I was smart first and disabled second.
So, on I go to Boston for graduate school with high standards for accessibility. Not so much. Boston is old, and so are its buildings. The campus was HUGE, and getting to class was difficult, and nobody was going to ask Dr. Famous So-and-So to teach in a different building so I could get to class in time. This is also where I learned that saying no when you are not in a position of power is scary, that making noise is scary, but that having someone with power as an ally is important. I remember asking for the university to install a railing on the languages building since there was no accessible entrance (the back of the building hadn’t been finished yet), and it took a full professor telling someone that he heard I might sue for them to actually put it in. I remember asking for better access to the graduate student office (then on the 4th floor), and they offered to let me have a space in the Language Center, across the street. Not a solution, I said. How do you expect me to meet with faculty? I remember falling in front of the French House, where I was an RA (and where I met my now brother-in-law, who introduced me to my lovely husband) because it hadn’t been sufficiently plowed after a Nor’easter. I had called to let them know it hadn’t been done and that I needed to get to class, and they said, “tell your professor you had to wait and be late.” I said, “I am the teacher! This is a class I teach!” They didn’t come, and I tried to get there, and I fell. And, they had to pay for a $3,000 ED bill. Let that be a lesson. One good thing about Boston: they did not make me pay for parking and let me park ANYWHERE!!!! This is saying a lot, considering how much parking costs there.
I do have to say, my faculty were great and never treated me as less than. I had a difficult time with teaching multiple classes in a row, so they made sure to give me a schedule that worked with my arthritis. Never once did I feel as though they thought I had something to prove. I was already in that mode though, and I think it’s a good thing, because the academic job market is tough anyway, but add being a minority to the mix, and it’s a confusing world!
So, what does this have to do with institutionalized discrimination? Well, these two vastly different experiences taught me to expect both ends of the spectrum. I learned to happily accept inclusive gestures and to advocate when there were none. This is really touchy on the job market. You’re walking into a situation where nobody is expecting a small, blonde lady to walk into that interview. You’re smart. Everyone who applied is smart, hopefully. We’ve got our PhD in hand. Where do you put “dwarf” on your CV? When you’re filling out the HR data sheets, no one asks about it for diversity tracking. On paper, I am a white female. End of story. I know not everyone chooses to disclose race on their application form, but it’s an option, a way of letting people know. So my options are: 1) wait until they call me up for that campus interview, tell them what I’ll need for ADA, and then worry that they’ll already think I’m high maintenance; 2) not tell them and not be able to perform well at the campus interview because I can’t reach ANYTHING! How do you disclose? When do you disclose? Do you disclose?
I chose to disclose my disability after they called me for interviews, and before I got to campus. I knew that this might mean that I had to fight extra hard to win over the search committee because they are all wondering what it might mean to hire that “handicapped applicant.” Let’s face it, when people hear the word “dwarf,” they think Snow White, Lord of the Rings, and the Wizard of Oz. This isn’t exactly what you want them to be thinking about the weeks before you arrive, but it’s better than arriving and saying, “Surprise! I hope I can reach the chalkboard for my teaching demo.” It makes you vulnerable. This is what institutionalized discrimination is. It means that people who fit the norm don’t have to think about these things, about when to disclose their marginal status. It happens with race. It happens with gender. It happens with sexual orientation. It happens with disability. It’s a tough space to navigate, and it doesn’t end when you get the job. I know that over 100 people applied for my job in a week. A job that I got. A job that I earned.
But, then you enter the academic world of, “aaaack! I’m tenure-track! I have stuff to do!” It doesn’t get easier. I wanted my colleagues to think of me as capable, as smart, as an “institutional fit” with “academic promise.” I asked for the bare minimum in terms of accessibility because I didn’t want to be perceived as a problem child. The P&T committee is watching! Oooooh. Even though it was my RIGHT to complain, to advocate, to make noise, I didn’t. I went right back into that mode of “I’ll show ’em! Small body, big brain.” I need tenure. All this work for nothing. No. Not me. This is something minorities do to get ahead in academia: women put off child-rearing until tenure or put up with being called a bitch in a position of power; people of color don’t make waves, don’t discuss racism too much; LGBTQ quietly mention their partner, ask about gender-neutral bathrooms and benefits; disabled people put up with inaccessible facilities and meekly ask for minimal accommodations.
What did playing games get me? I was department chair before I was tenured. I was selected as the director of the Honors College before I got tenure. I got tenure. But, I’m also tired. Burnt out. There’s a reason I’m off this semester. I’m also mad. I shouldn’t have put up with some of the things I put up with at an institution where I do a great job. I’m a good teacher, a good academic, and a rockstar in service. But, the reality of the situation is that I spent 7 years on tenure, making sure that my intellect came first so that maybe, just maybe, people wouldn’t see the other part. So they didn’t. Now, I’m older. My body really hurts. And it surprised many colleagues when I got Max. “You’re not really disabled, though. Right?” I had undermined my own interests. Institutional discrimination fooled me into playing the game.
Since earning tenure, I’ve reevaluated my priorities, and my mental and physical health is one of them. I’m speaking up. I’m doing research on disability studies. I’m an advocate. I want people to see that I’m smart AND disabled. It’s not a contest. One doesn’t come first. I’m both.