Are you a Williams ableist?

Abby Fournier

It was a typical Williams Monday, which for me meant driving to my COVID test after class before I grabbed lunch. I parked in a handicap space at the Class of 1937 House — not legally close enough to the testing site or a Paresky entrance to qualify as handicap accessible — and a lady in the building knocked on her office window, wagged her finger at me, and gestured that I needed to move my car. With fury, I walked back over to my car, pointed to the legal handicap placard that was clearly visible on my mirror, and she waved me away, mouthing “I’m sorry,” guiltily.

The next day, I saw a Facilities van illegally (no handicap placard or license plate in sight) parked in that same space. Yes, there is a problem with people illegally parking in handicap spaces. But, the fact that she assumed that I was able-bodied because I was young and walking was the last straw in my silent suffering with structural ableism on this campus.

Williams students, staff, and faculty have an ableist mindset. Not because they are inherently discriminatory (well, some are, but that is a story for another time), but because the Williams campus is so grossly inaccessible that the Purple Bubble is simply not exposed to ability diversity. The public buildings on campus have one way exits and entrances for “COVID safety.” Did anyone consider that although the exit of a building might be close to a handicap parking space, the entrance is on the complete opposite side? One way entrances/exits are just one more obstacle preventing people with mobility differences from accessing campus resources.

Williams is a sporty campus. We praise physical ability almost as much as we praise academic accomplishment and genius. And since many athletes get injured and also have at least temporary mobility differences, why do we still fail to create accessible spaces? Accessibility on campus would not just help people with permanent disabilities, it would also help Williams’ beloved athletes.

Academic spaces were never meant for people with disabilities. Jay Timothy Dolmage is one of the few who addresses this directly in his book, Academic Ableism. He writes that the university itself is a “rhetorical space that holds a history of injustice in its architecture.” Think of the most iconic photos of prestigious universities — they all prominently feature steps. Williams’ admissions motto is “Climb High, Climb Far,” and often includes pictures of this motto with the steps on which it is inscribed near Science Quad. What about the prospective students where to “climb” is not in their reality? In the admissions brochure, all of the pictures are of students standing, moving, or doing athletic activities. The presentation of Williams to the world is ableist. While individuals might be accepting and compassionate towards people with disabilities, these individuals collectively function as a Williams community that positively values able-bodiedness. Williams’ public language and presentation make able-bodiedness and able-mindedness compulsory, so we simply cannot claim to be an inclusive and diverse community. The institutional attitude towards ability is unacceptable, and makes campus extraordinarily difficult for people with disabilities.

Williams spends millions of dollars on new, fancy academic buildings while the majority of dorms are still grossly inaccessible. If Williams were to create a culture of accessibility and demonstrate this by providing safe, inclusive homes for students, imagine how our disability culture could grow and thrive. I compel you, fellow Williams community, to fight ableism on our campus in the following ways:

1 – Join the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). Become an Accessibility Coordinator (you get paid!) and work on a part of campus accessibility that you feel makes a difference. Projects include neurodiversity awareness, accessible campus tours, and everything in between. Reach out to G.L. Wallace, the Director of OAE, for more information.

2 – Write more op-eds about injustice on campus. Disabled people have intersectional identities too, so other justice work is still helpful for the disability community!

3 – Never again assume someone’s dis/ability.

4 – Use your campus platform to advocate for structural change in our building, funding, and diversity training plans.

5 – Professors, include a statement about accessible education in your syllabi and demonstrate your compassion for and understanding of students with disabilities. Staff, create spaces that are safe for people of all cognitive, emotional, and physical abilities. Students, notice your ableist tendencies and do your research on how to become more inclusive and educated in disability matters.

To those of you who have been disability allies in my time at Williams, thank you. I would have not survived my time on this campus without you. To those of you who have caused me deep pain because of your ableist actions, statements, and decisions, hold yourself accountable and do better. Accessibility is for all of us.

Abby Fournier ’21 is a political science major from Natick, Mass.