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Praxis of Accessibility

Praxis of Accessibility by Midori Friedbauer

Edited by Will St. P. Nelson

The institution of higher learning is inherently colonial, inherently racist, and inherently violent for people of color, survivors of institutional and systemic violence, and to people with diverse abilities. Too many classrooms become microcosms of oppression, where trauma is reproduced by professors and instructors who are not teaching as if the material in the syllabus directly affects the physical, mental, and spiritual health of their students. Frequently, classroom policies echo the same bigotry that course content attempts to critique. A lack of self-awareness permeates pedagogy, which leads directly to the reproduction of discriminatory practices that cause systemic violence that makes it difficult for students to enter college classrooms. If you want to make space for students, you need to change the space, you need to change your syllabus, and you need to think about how your presence in the classroom is helping or harming students. I will explain how college is inherently violent, how classrooms reproduce structural and systemic violence, and how a few classroom policies can start to move toward minimizing harm for students of color, survivors of trauma, and students with diverse abilities.

In the United States, and many other places in the world, institutions of higher education are built on stolen, occupied lands with wealth accumulated through the exploitation of people of color. Many colleges and universities bare the names of racists, slaveholders, misogynists, and officers of wars that affect the students in your classrooms and their families. Essentially, universities and colleges are institutions imported from Europe for and by the rich to accumulate capital within groups of preferred and approved people who could be selected to attend the schools and weeded out by arbitrary standards set by the school. Students today are told that their future employment opportunities, and therefore their ability to survive and support their families, entirely depends on academic success; especially academic success in college. Students of color, in particular, are fed a narrative that they occupy a lower social position than their peers and the only hope of upward mobility requires they attend college no matter the cost to themselves, their families, or their well-being. Students of color, survivors of systemic violence, and people with diverse abilities are asked to sacrifice their money, take on debt, leave their social and emotional safety nets, leave their cultural homes and ways of life, and relocate to an institution that was designed to keep them out at every level. Your classroom is one of those levels designed to keep them out. Their presence in your classroom is coerced by economic stress, social constructs, and capitalist expectations. Many of your students are there not because they want to be -- but because if they don’t they may never find a job that will provide enough income for their basic survival. Our society does not guarantee food, shelter, clothing, health care, or child care and as the cost of living grows so too do the economic stresses that force students to participate in the institution of higher education. For these students, academic success is a matter of life and death.

I am one of those students forced to be here. I am only here because colonizers committed genocide across what is now called the United States, my ancestors were stolen and enslaved, years of racism and discrimination caused mass migration to the North, a lifetime of poverty and trauma made me eligible for scholarships and government assistance, and my adherence to requests that I write about my trauma for college admittance committees secured those funds. I was told I would never amount to anything unless I went to college. I left behind everything I knew to go to a school I couldn’t afford on someone else’s money so that the university could pat itself on the back for being so diverse. The diversity of the college is little more than tokenism when I walk underneath the statue of a slaveholder every single day and see only a handful of people who look like me as I walk from class to class. In a school of nearly 48,000 students, the UW Seattle campus had less than 2000 enrolled black students in Autumn of 2019. I work 10 hours a week to support myself and save money so I can pay the taxes on my scholarships. I overextend myself with extracurricular activities because I am told that it is no longer good enough to go to college, I have to simultaneously have an internship, leadership position, or volunteer for as many hours as I can -- encouraging me to labor for free until I have destroyed my body, spirit, and mind. Then, I am asked to speak of gratitude for being separated from my community and family, gratitude for education from instructors who re-traumatize me, and gratitude for the opportunity to work ten times harder than my white peers to make it half as far.

Unironically, I am grateful because the alternative to going to college for me would have been remaining in poverty, supporting my family on the limited income potential I had as only a high school graduate, and staying in a community where I was abused and assaulted. Yes, college and my scholarships have saved me from a worse fate -- but I wouldn’t need saving if not for colonialism. And, that colonialism is reproduced in the classrooms which are a slightly lesser evil than the life I had before. Furthermore, my being at college further harms the community I came from, taking their ambitious youth and telling them to participate in the same capitalism that led to the gentrification of their homes. My degree will meet the market’s demand for college-educated workers and serve as so-called evidence that “Anyone can make it in America.” The truth is, I wouldn’t have made it without the generous donations of billionaires, millionaires, and corporations who have a vested interest in reproducing the inequality that made them so profitable and using scholarship gifts as part of their PR scheme to keep people just hopeful enough that they too may climb the social ladder that people don’t riot as their homes are foreclosed and their neighborhoods are bought and sold by real estate developers that don’t care about affordable housing. The inequalities that allow universities to exist are sawing through each rung of the ladder of economic and social mobility.

Over and over again, I am re-traumatized in college classrooms. I am subjected to unmonitored class discussions where classmates say violent and awful things that make me relive past traumas. I am asked to read graphic, horrific descriptions of violence against bodies like mine without content warnings and without follow-up discussion to justify reading the material at all. I have had professors go beyond microaggressions into the territory of justifying bigotry and violence. I have had my various identities and statuses brought up in classroom discussions and discussed as if anyone in my position could not possibly exist in college classrooms. I am asked to provide documentation, expensive doctor’s notes, attend hours of consultations, and file paperwork to even begin receiving minor accommodations. Many nights, I have encountered violence in these ways and found myself too emotionally distraught to do my assignments until late in the night, several hours after the incidents, and have to forgo sleep to turn in an assignment on time the next day. Frequently, my class syllabi give unfair advantages to already privileged students by not offering the kinds of accommodations that students in my position can take advantage of while offering help to students who have more free time and resources than I do. Often, I spend more time recovering from being in a classroom than I spend learning.

No apolitical classrooms

Protect students

Monitor discussions with authority, and if this isn't possible set clear guidelines on how students can report problems, set boundaries, and get your help if a discussion is becoming violent

Have specific content warnings, with page numbers, and justify reading or showing any graphic or disturbing content

Give alternatives to assignments that may disturb students.

Give free resources to help students deal with course content, not just the syllabus cut-and-paste that is University-wide. Tell students the address of where they can seek crisis counseling on campus. Offer flyers for safe campus, counseling resources, Planned Parenthood, or other services that may be relevant to them.

Post online warnings about subjects the course will cover so they can decide whether or not your class is the right one for them before they enroll, saving them the stress of possibly having to reschedule their part-time work if they realize they have to change courses after your day one syllabus discussion.

Attendance policies need to go.

DRS should not be necessary to get accommodations for absences

It is unfair to ask students to get excuses for their absence, especially doctor's notes

Record your lectures on Panopto if possible

Encourage students to have a shared class study guide/note set so students won't have to worry that they won't be able to catch up if they become ill

Make as much of your assigned readings as free or inexpensive as possible

Organize your canvas files so students can find documents in a timely manner

Keeping files organized by week makes it less likely a student will miss a reading due to not knowing how to navigate your files (computer literacy is an expectation of the privileged)

Make your syllabus available well in advance so students can order their textbooks from more economically accessible sources.

Encourage students to leave the room if they feel uncomfortable with content and assure them there will be no negative consequences for leaving.

Let students know about alternative assignments they can do if they have an access need and encourage them to talk to you if they have any conflicts or problems with assignments.

Make field trips optional, or give students adequate time to find alternate off-campus activities to do for the assignment.

Don't expect students to put your class before their needs, before their work schedules, or before their family.

Never reprimand a student for academic performance in front of their classmates, including giving feedback where students can hear you, demanding students resubmit a paper in front of peers or pointing out mistakes you found in turned in assignments in front of the class. If you use a student's work as an example, anonymize the information thoroughly

If you know a student is affected by a subject you are speaking about, or think you know, don't assume and don't stare at them or ask them to talk about their experiences in front of the class. They may not want to open themselves up to negative consequences of sharing those experiences, and it's not right to assume you are entitled to their input.

Stop using students to further your own career. You are being paid with their tuition to teach them. They have no obligation to help you "learn" from the knowledge they produce in your classroom or the background knowledge they bring to the conversation. You are not entitled to hear their feedback. If they want to help you, if they want to share, that is their choice in when and how they do so.

Participation can take many forms, do not require students to come to class to participate, and do not require students to speak in front of the class to get participation points (whenever possible).

Alternatives: Ask for a daily reading response, ask for students to speak to a partner in small groups, let students write learning reflections, ask students to post in the discussion board on Canvas, be creative in your pedagogy.

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