Much has been researched and written regarding the disadvantage and inequity experienced by people with disability in the university system. There are entire academic disciplines, departments and databases devoted to the topic. To explain how it has effected me as a person who is well within the realm of legal blindness is difficult. It is difficult because somehow I am the one who carries the shame and burden of not measuring up to an impossible standard, set by a structure and history of exclusion and invalidation of my needs, wants and rights.
I try not to think about it too deeply, but I know I would be even less likely to succeed without opportunities within the university system to present my case, justify my academic performance, and explain why I am not nearly as accomplished as I would be if I were not navigating the very real barriers that come with having a severe sensory disability, and all the inferences that accompany it.
In my experience, as a person who is blind, I am often expected to complete the same tasks as my able-bodied counterparts with 85% less resources. Nowhere was this more evident than in my undergraduate university studies.
Unlike many of my peers, I did not opt for a university education straight from school, even though I had secretly wanted to find my place in an academic context. Instead, I waited almost fifteen years until access to information became more readily available to people such as myself, who rely on text to speech technology to complete the most basic tasks. However, even then, most of my materials had to be transcribed from other print sources into a specific electronic format in order for them to be accessible, and this took time.
I was often five or more weeks into a thirteen week term, and still without the basic course readings to build from, yet still expected to finish my course work by the thirteen week mark, regardless of the delays. Repeatedly I received course materials after a subject had finished and I had moved on to the next. In some cases, I had to withdraw from a subject all together after the session was well underway because a university administrator had forgotten to process my specific request for course materials in an alternative format. This alone delayed my graduation date by six months and jeopardised job offers. In spite of the difficulties, and thanks to a network of supportive lecturers, friends, service provisions, and my strong advocacy skills, I completed my undergraduate degrees with reasonable marks.
However, I cannot help but wonder how the experience or outcomes may have been different, or how much higher my results, better my job prospects, and chances of being eligible for an honours year would have been if I had been afforded the same opportunities and equity as my cohort.
The statistics, for example, regarding the unemployment or underemployment of people who are blind or have low vision sits somewhere around the 68% to 72% mark, although personally I suspect it to be higher.
Speaking as a person whose blindness does not allow me to read print, no matter the magnification, and who relies on various adaptive technologies and mobility aids to compete in a world which largely considers disability as the responsibility of the impaired rather than a social construct, I can confidently, if not proudly claim to be a part of the majority who are not employed to their fullest capacity.
My resume reflects this fact. There are gaps in my employment history where I was unable to find work. There are a string of menial jobs which are haphazard and sporadic, but they were all I could get. I gained qualifications I have hardly used, in a bid to legitimise my skills and make myself more employable. I have taken volunteer positions in an attempt to gain experience or exposure.
Finally, like many people with disability, I have resorted to employing myself as a way of earning an income and contributing to society, but with limited success. The reality is that rarely in my work history have I broken through the national poverty line.
However, what my resume does not show is the times I have been discriminated against, blatant or otherwise. I have been blamed for the perceived extra work I create, where if inclusive design principles had been adhered to in the first place, my disability would not have come into the equation. I have been judged, passed over for a project, promotion or even an interview because of how a job has been structured, or a decision maker views my potential based on their imaginings and/or discomfort of disability
It also does not show the compromises, limitations, awkwardness and sometimes impossibilities that are a by-product of working with adaptive technology and often reverse engineered accommodations. Lastly, it does not show how I have been pigeonholed, and how I have been offered coffee in exchange for a professional opinion, service or resource, that would be happily purchased, paid for and promoted if I were not a person with a disability.
So what happens when we continue to create barriers to participation? Not only does it hold me as a person with disability to ransom, and ensures I remain beholden to a society that is intent on punishing me for it, but it also keeps the able-bodied majority captive. For if I am not free to explore, find, and function to my fullest capacity, then neither is the rest of society, because it is too busy oscillating between caring and complaining about me, as the hostage of its own insistence.
People assume that I do not know equity because my disability is congenital. What I think they really mean is that I do not know the comfort of privilege that can only be associated with not having to ask for equity.
For me, returning to university is a way of capitalising on the recent traction I am beginning to gain in my career. It will also help me achieve a greater sense of equity and inclusion in a society that largely views the social model of disability as an exercise in intellect, rather than truly considered and respectful understanding and action. I am excited about the opportunity to contribute to the body of research in my chosen discipline, and cannot think of anything I would rather be doing than a doctoral degree. However, I know that fulfilling this personal and professional ambition is not going to be possible without a modicum of support from the university system to assist my endeavours.
One of the most difficult barriers I come across as a person who is blind is navigating the digital environment. This is not due to a lack of skill or knowledge when using my adaptive technology. Rather, it is a by-product of many things, including the digital gap and the cumbersome nature of text to speech software itself. A higher degree by research relies heavily on information sought from the internet in various forms, and experience tells me this is going to take more time, resources and cognition than it otherwise would if I could see.
Just as with the internet, the challenge of navigating the built environment will be more demanding than if I had sight, and I need to factor such things into my physical, mental and emotional well-being. As much as I wish, will or want it to be different, the fact is that concentrating on the seemingly simplest of tasks can be exhausting. Blindness can be exhausting.
I am constantly juggling the expectations of a sighted society, and the reality of my situation due to my disability. There are things which are beyond my physical capacity, and in order to do my thesis justice, I need to be highly focused. Therefore, having some of the inequities taken out of the equation by receiving various supports that may seem excessive, unnecessary or unfair to my sighted counterparts, might allow me to gain some of the ground I otherwise lose by having a disability.
However, by no possible means or stretch of the imagination will these provisions bestow equality, let alone provide me an advantage in the university system over my peers. Because the truth is; there can be no substitute, no equivalent or no equal to that of being sighted.
As a person who is blind, I am naturally geared toward higher level thinking, and joining the dots in different ways, as I do not have the luxury of visual distraction to entertain me. However, this is a characteristic of my disability that is all too frequently undervalued, not recognised, or worse, not taken seriously, particularly by those in positions of power, influence or decision making rolls who simply do not realise the difference they could make if only they were not so ableist in their assumptions, expectations and outlook.
My life is made up of strategy, logistics, mental maps, data extrapolation, and finding patterns and links between seemingly unrelated narratives and information in order to make sense of a world that quite naturally and rightly prides itself on visuality. Although, this visuality is often blind to its own faults, prejudice and unreliability.
I do not ask for access, equity or opportunity out of a sense of ideology or moral principle, although surely I have the right. Nor do I ask for support from the university system in order to be difficult. I would much rather we were not having this conversation at all, but thanks to academia playing what seems like an impossible game of catch-up with a human rights model of disability, here I am justifying my existence, my ambition and my equality.
I ask for inclusion and accessibility to the university system because it is essential. It is essential to us as a society if we are to truly move forward and learn from our history of exclusion. The fact is, many of history’s greatest inventions, and our most used modern essentials have stemmed from difference, diversity, and disability. The qwerty keyboard, automatic doors, elevators, curb ramps, audible traffic signals, closed captions and voice input/output are just a few items that come to mind when thinking of disability-driven product placement. Not to mention countless other gadgets and technologies that the greater able-bodied collective either take for granted or shamelessly hijack as their own with little to no regard for how or why they were created.
I want to push the envelope of academic inclusion that little bit further, and what better way to do that than by adding to the body of research in my chosen discipline.
I thank you for your time and consideration in this matter, and look forward to working with you in the future.