The Empty Room – Indifference to Disability is Ordinary

One of my absolutely favorite writers on disability, Lydia Brown, is at Georgetown. She’s an increasingly well-known voice on disability issues and, not surprisingly, was asked to provide a training to student organizations about accessibility. She agreed.

No one showed up.

In a powerful post, Brown explains what the empty room means.

Nothing demonstrates more clearly the utter disregard that disabled people face every day at Georgetown than this. That of literally hundreds of student organizations with hundreds (possibly even creeping into the low thousands) of students involved on their boards or other leadership positions, not even one person deemed it worth their while to learn about access and inclusion.

She then acknowledges that yes, people at Georgetown are busy (aside – also jaded if they turn down free pizza), but it was a huge pool, and not one person decided that disability issues might possibly matter to their groups.

There is hate and scorn for people with disabilities out there, yes, but that’s not the problem. It’s the casual, structural, ableism, in which disability issues vanish, in which when we talk about diversity on campus, we mean race, gender, and class, not ability. Even when we throw ability into the list, we don’t actually act on it. When we act on it, unless it’s mandatory, no one comes. When we make it mandatory, we build resentment, hate, and scorn.

Here’s how Brown finishes:

The empty room means that our fight is less against willful hate and more against the easy ignorance cloaked in the privilege of never having to live a disabled experience — the privilege of never being guilted and shamed into going to an event that you lost the spoons for but had requested an interpreter for beforehand — the privilege of never having to decide days in advance whether you will go to an event or not — the privilege of never having to wonder whether you’ll be able to access the handouts, presentation slides, or speech of the presenter — the privilege of not worrying whether other attendees’ perfumed products will induce an allergic reaction, meltdown, or physical illness — the privilege of not sitting on edge in case something triggers a seizure — the privilege of not thinking about whether something will surprise you by triggering a panic, anxiety, or PTSD attack — the privilege of not having to think about whether you can even get into the fucking building — the privilege of being able to go to any event you like, anywhere, with little difficulty or inconvenience except perhaps finding parking —

The empty room means that this state of affairs, a state of affairs in which our completely avoidable and unnecessary yet routine exclusion from programming on campus is simply ordinary.

I don’t have an answer except to share Brown’s writing and to share her frustration. Right now, I am editing our ADA documents to try and make them more robust. We will end up with stronger rules, clearer guidelines, and more resentment for the “special perks.”

Today, I have no solutions for this.

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