I finally have the basic answer to the question I posed to my alma mater, Amherst College, nearly two years ago. Subscribers to this website may recall that, after being excluded from a Zoom presentation in 2021 due to the College’s reliance on an inaccessible portal, I grew concerned that Amherst was failing to give blind and visually impaired students the accommodations to which they are entitled. (See “Snowflakes at Amherst.”) I contacted administrators there to get a picture of the services it provides disabled students. Generalized and seemingly evasive answers led me to approach my concern indirectly by asking how many blind and other physically disabled students had been admitted in the past ten years. I was told this number is so small that disclosure would violate student privacy. I couldn’t, and still can’t, fathom this claim.
However, from articles in Amherst’s student newspaper and comments transmitted to me by current students, I’ve determined that Amherst has had no blind students in the past four years. One graduated in 2019. That student mentioned a blind senior on campus in 2017. So, for at least seven years, there have been no more than two blind students, the last having graduated four years ago. As for other physical disabilities, I believe there’s currently just one student who uses a wheelchair and that there was no such student for a substantial time before.
What damage am I doing by disclosing these numbers? If I felt there were even the scintilla of a possibility that I could harm Amherst’s disabled students, I’d withhold them. Or do these numbers risk damaging Amherst’s reputation or self-image? It’s impossible not to speculate that administrator self-protection was the real motivation.
In fact, I now know that when I asked for numbers in 2021, Amherst had no blind students and hadn’t had any for two straight years. No wonder its Web staff wasn’t prepared for a blind alum in 2021; they believed they hadn’t needed to consider visual impairment for two whole years. So, at the time I posed my question in 2021, no student’s privacy would have been implicated. In not volunteering even this much information, Amherst really had to be relying on an insupportable claim that a number, including zero, has a right to privacy.
The name of the student who graduated in 2019 is Annika Ariel, which I’m comfortable reporting because she had two articles published in her name on the very concerns about which I inquired at the outset of my search in 2021. I won’t disclose any other names precisely because I no more want to infringe on student privacy than the College does.
Here’s some of what I learned from Ariel’s first article, entitled, significantly, “Where is Disability in Amherst’s Commitment to Diversity?” As a freshman, the administration, contrary to her wishes, assigned her no roommate. As she acknowledges, many students would love to have single rooms, but she writes that she wanted “the ‘normal’ college experience.” Why did the administration deny her wish? Was it out of some unspecified concern for Ariel that she wouldn’t have endorsed, or were they worried about the feelings of the sighted person assigned to share a room with her? Judging by the cageyness of Amherst’s accessibility bureaucracy, I doubt we’ll ever find out.
In just one more incident, Ariel says the “accessibility services manager” evidently pointed to a picture to test her. As she writes, “There are many respectful ways to ask a blind person about their residual vision, but pointing at a painting and asking if they can see it when you have the student’s disability documentation — well, that’s something else.” By analogy, imagine someone with a missing arm shows up at an accessibility office and a staffer asks them to demonstrate their difficulty in lifting heavy objects with two hands. The resulting struggle would be humiliating, in part at least, because it was foreseeable.
In Ariel’s second article, coauthored with another student and published the next year, there’s this sentence: “Annika was the only person with a visible disability on campus for two years.” I should have used this term, “visible disability,” when inquiring about the number of students with physical disabilities.
Amherst is happy to announce to the world the number of students it selected from distant, low-population states such as Montana (in my class it was one) and the number of students selected by professional sports teams. I assume I could also obtain statistics on race, ethnicity, gender, religion and the other irritating questions that infest school, hospital, employment and other forms. The exception at Amherst? Physical disability.
Because no one at Amherst has so much as tried to explain why disclosing a small number has anything to do with privacy, I’m left with the impression that the administration perceives disability as a weakness, a vulnerability, possibly something vaguely but ineffably shameful.
The sad likelihood is that such an attitude, though never admitted, is prevalent in society. Yes, people respond to stories about feats achieved by disabled people, but heroes among disabled people are as much outliers as they are in any group. It’s in the nature of “hero.” For most of us, our lives are pretty ordinary, our flaws manifest, our accomplishments modest, our minor triumphs treasured for all that. However, hope for acceptance into mainstream society has been kindled by four or five decades of advances.
Many disabled people are just as much caught up in this ambivalence as (for want of a better word) nondisabled people. The other day, a friend reacted angrily to a New York Times opinion piece, written by Edward Hirsch, whose title says it all: I Am Going Blind, and I Now Find It Strangely Exhilarating.” Hirsch describes how, having overcome the trauma of declining vision, a whole new world of adventure has opened up before him. Getting to the post office becomes an interesting challenge, while interactions with strangers take on a different dimension.
My friend, who, like Hirsch, is experiencing diminishing vision, wrote in an email: “His making the journey into visual impairment, this wonderful, exciting transformation, to me, sounds both disingenuous, and… I can’t think of the word I’m looking for! Dumb?”
To which I replied:
I identify with some of the experiences he describes. It boils down to how blindness, along with people’s perceptions of you, changes everyday interactions. There’s also a sense of adventure. Who needs to climb Everest when getting downtown requires such concentration? But yes, given a choice between doing it with sight versus doing it while blind, I’d choose the former. I guess I think that once one accepts that vision is going to go, turning the negatives upside-down is constructive and, sometimes at any rate, fun.
That’s perhaps a simplistic example of how disabled people’s attitudes are all over the map. Even within my own mind, my attitudes are hardly consistent. I can be touched when someone offers assistance, but infuriated by the way someone else does. For long stretches, I feel pretty much equal with the rest of society. At moments, though, it frustrates me when I can’t use a website because its designers failed to render it readily accessible to blind and visually impaired visitors.
We’re at an early stage of the integration of disabled people into mainstream society. It’s true for society as a whole and, in my view, for us disabled people. We need more and more people to emerge from disability’s shadows into the well-lit thoroughfares of mainstream society. No type of institution could be more valuable in fostering this transition than a fine liberal arts college, and no liberal arts college could be better suited than Amherst, with its relatively small student population (1,800) and low faculty-to-student ratio. Amherst teaches students how to think, how to listen, how to be ethical, how to be civic-minded: in short, how to be civilized. In such an environment, a disabled person can develop techniques for articulating feelings and experiences that would otherwise vanish into history’s void. At the same time, classmates must come to terms with that student. Stereotypes go out the window. But for Amherst, I might not have gained the foundation for self-expression that has propelled me forward ever since.
This past fall, Amherst welcomed a new president, Michael Elliott. I’ve exchanged emails on accessibility with him. I was also in the audience when he spoke to my class one recent Thursday evening via Zoom. His ability to address a wide range of questions, from how an ethically-minded college can prepare students for an unethical world to the strengths and threats implicit in artificial intelligence, is impressive. His warmth comes through even via Zoom.
My sense from my past two years of trying to get answers out of Amherst is that it has an entrenched, seemingly inflexible accessibility bureaucracy. I’d go so far as to suggest that these administrators don’t even try to reflect on what lies behind their resort to a bogus right of privacy when concealing telling information. Amherst may or may not be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Either way, rules are always only basic standards. Individual needs must be attended to.
Elliott appears to get this last point, even as, for now, he stands by the positions that the College has taken with me. Time will tell. So far, I’m encouraged.
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