- Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education by Jay Timothy Dolmage
Jay Timothy Dolmage
Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017, 254 pages, $24.95 (softcover)
Academic Ableism explores higher education through the lens of disability-based oppression. Noting that "disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education" (p. 3), Jay Timothy Dolmage sets out to reveal the rhetorical labor inherent in constructing disability on college and university campuses. Succeeding admirably in this task, Dolmage work joins other exemplary works on disability in higher education published by the University of Michigan Press as part of the "Corporealities: Discourses of Disability" series. Like Price's (2011) Mad at School and Kerschbaum, Eisenman, and Jones's (2017) Negotiating Disability, Dolmage's Academic Ableism examines the social and environmental production of disability. Differentiating ableism (positive associations with ablebodiedness and ablemindedness) from disablism (a system of negative beliefs and behaviors associated with disability), Dolmage walks the reader through the past, present, and future of disability on college campuses. In doing so, he demonstrates that the reductive equation of disability with formal accommodations has prevented the creation of truly inclusive physical and intellectual spaces and that this lack of inclusivity is an intentional design feature of higher education.
Expanding on traditions in DisCrit and crip theory that frame disability intersectionally (e.g., Connor, Ferri, & Annamma, 2015; Kafer, 2013), Dolmage shows that, along with other minoritized social identities like race and gender, disability has historically functioned as a socially constructed way to describe perceived deviance and inferiority. Colleges and universities have been deeply complicit in these social constructions. American academics provided the intellectual labor for the eugenics movement, which led to past and present attempts to separate the able from the disabled. University administrators then used this same logic to deny admission to broad segments of the American population on the grounds of mental hygiene. In so doing, colleges and universities have rhetorically constructed people with disabilities to be inferior, which restricts their capacity to demonstrate their full potential in an ableist world.
Notably, this focus on the rhetoric of disability means that Academic Ableism does not look or read like the sort of social science typically pursued in student affairs and higher education. Instead, Dolmage traces the idea of disability through both academia and society to show how disability has been framed shapes the experiences of people with disabilities. Chapter 1, "Steep Steps," does so largely by looking at the historical construction of disability. Specifically, it looks at the way that picturesque college and university campuses embed assumptions about who is supposed to be at home within them. The book's second chapter, "The Retrofit," seeks to dismantle contemporary rhetoric about inclusion predicated on accommodations by showing how this focus allows historical inequities to persist into the present. That theme is picked up once again in chapter 3, "Imaginary College Students," where Dolmage describes common rhetorical constructions of students to show how ableist thinking is deeply embedded in attempts to support students with disabilities. Requests of support for students with disabilities are seen as impositions on the routine functioning of the university juxtaposed to the seemingly legitimate requests for additional support for their ablebodied and ableminded peers. In chapter 4, Dolmage takes [End Page 507] on "Universal Design," which has often been offered as a panacea for supporting students with disabilities in higher education. This chapter is the first legitimately hopeful one in Academic Ableism, but it also makes clear that contemporary framings of universal design suffer from their insistence on an interest convergence framing. Universal design can certainly help produce more accessible colleges and universities, but the right reason to adopt these practices is not for the benefits derived by ablebodied and ableminded peers, which has often been the framing. Instead, Dolmage argues that universal design should be embraced as a set of guiding principles used to adapt to the needs of students with disabilities. Finally, in chapter 5, "Disability on Campus, On Film: Framing the Failures of Higher Education," Dolmage demonstrates the pervasiveness of the rhetorical constructions described earlier by showing how they are reproduced...