How to Be Disabled in Higher Education

From the notebooks of a blind professor.
By Stephen Kuusisto

steep steps leading up to arched building


In Britain not so long ago, they used to call you a “noncompounder” if you were an unregistered university student. The term is splendid. Compound! Oh to be a compounder! To assume compounding as a wish!

“With placement” is what the word means, Latinate; it is about distinc­tions, assignment. Less known perhaps is that compound as a noun springs from European encroachments in the Orient and Africa. The Online Etymo­logical Dictionary traces the origins of the term as follows:

“enclosed residence,” 1670s, “the enclosure for a factory or settlement of Europeans in the East,” via Dutch (kampoeng) or Portuguese, from Malay (Austronesian) kampong “village, group of buildings.” Spelling influenced by compound (v.). Later used of South African diamond miners’ camps (1893), then of large fenced-in residences generally (1946).


That universities are compounds isn’t news. Campuses descend from monasteries, and both at first were filled by men and boys cheated by means of primogeniture. It’s noteworthy that Hamlet returns to Denmark from a university. As a literary device it’s shorthand for his reduced status.

What’s less well known is that the architecture of universities was and still is designed to represent the arduous nature of learning—buildings with tall steps and labyrinthine corridors are purposely disagreeable not merely because campuses have their origins in the monasteries with their misericordia but also owing to the supposition that one must suffer into truth. Educa­tion is conceived as a climb up steep stairs.

In his new, groundbreaking book Academic Able­ism, Jay Dolmage writes:

The steep steps metaphor puts forward the idea that access to the university is a movement upwards— only the truly “fit” survive this climb. University campuses have lots of steep steps—but the entire university experience can also be metaphorized as a movement up steep steps. The steep steps, physically and figuratively, lead to the ivory tower. The tower is built upon ideals and standards—historically, this is an identity that the university has embraced. I want to suggest that we have mapped the university in this way—as a climb up the stairs of the ivory tower—for particular reasons.

The agora is physically strenuous so that one may appreciate the social climb one makes in society. If you cannot climb stairs you know in your heart you shouldn’t be there. (I still recall the professor of litera­ture at the University of Iowa who informed me that, owing to my blindness, I shouldn’t be in his class.)


Ableism: I’m the problem. I didn’t get cured.

Ableism: a term no one likes. Almost like licorice.

What if I substitute licorice for ableism? Would it be easier to talk about?

Licorice: a set of beliefs. All licorice eaters are equal but some are more equal than others. If you don’t favor Glycyrrhiza glabra you can’t sit at the table. The great big licorice table. Note: too much licorice will poison animals and humans. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t whole cities of licorice.

Side note: when I was a boy in Finland, licorice candies were sold in bite-sized pieces, wrapped in wax paper featuring a cartoon of a little black child.

Licorice is not innocence.


Ableism: among other things, a belief that disability discrimination is just a matter of innocence. For exam­ple, “We really care about disabled people. What’s that? You can’t get basic accommodations? Oh dear. That must be awful! I’m sorry you feel that way!”

Ableism: the disabled have ungoverned feelings. That’s their problem.

I call the example above “the ableist shrug”—uni­versities are especially good at this.

“So, Billy, you don’t like licorice? Then you can’t be in our clubhouse!”

Ableism is infantile.


It is not convenient to think about these people today. Perhaps we will get to them tomorrow.

If you live in a compound you can think this way. As in, “We admitted them, now what do they want? Equal access? You must be kidding!”

Dear Licorice Factory: You can’t address whatever is meant by “diversity” until the problem above is addressed.

Where disability is concerned, college administra­tors see no reason to address the structural dynamics of outworn and damaging ideas—after all, disability is about accommodations, and doesn’t a special office take care of that?

The sentence above is always spoken by the able-bodied. The disabled don’t say this. They say, “We’re part of the village now.”

The able-bodied say, “You’re part of the village only insofar as it’s convenient. Go to your special office.”


Loose notes:

• The special office is always in an out-of-the-way location.

• The special office is always understaffed.

• The special office gives faculty and administra­tors permission to think “the disabled” (who are paying students—your sister, your friend, your neighbor) are a complicated problem, requiring sequestered and specialized “treatment.”

• This is an outworn model for disability engagement.

• Faculty and staff need to be brought into the twenty-first century where disability is concerned.

• This cannot be accomplished if able-bodied faculty, staff, and administrators cannot confront the legacies of ableist thinking.

• No one likes to be called ableist. Just as some white people hate to be called out for white privi­lege and say, “But I have a black friend,” thereby proving their privilege, ableists are fond of say­ing, “I care about disability,” which often means, “I want to change the subject.”

• If the able-bodied think themselves progressive but fail to assist the disabled when they face obstacles, they’re extending ableism.


The shrug: we are good people. But your accommo­dation is way down on our list of priorities, because, well, how do I say this? You’re not in our budget. Not in our plans, not convenient. We love convenience here at Licorice University. We may talk big about being the best! Frankly, business as usual is just fine. We love our licorice compound.

Shrug, from late Middle English, meaning “to fidget”—and fidget is an early Modern English word for “uneasy.” The ableist is both uneasy and vexed. Having to address disability is nettlesome.


When the disabled mention their problems—lack of access to buildings, bathrooms, educational materials, and transportation, zero dignity in the village square, the shrug works this way:

• Ableists personalize the problem.

• It’s the disabled person’s difficulty, not ours.

• All disabled people are just failed medical patients.

• If you can’t be cured, you’re a failure.

• While the disabled are talking, we look at our iPhones.

• We all know there’s something wrong with the disabled; it’s below the surface, like icebergs.

• If they just had better attitudes.

• When the disabled announce, “We really hate it here,” you say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

• The problems aren’t about accessibility and inclu­sion but instead about the individual disabled person.

• If you were the right kind of disabled person (Tiny Tim, for example), you’d be grateful for the little we’ve given you. “I know it’s a dinky crutch, handmade by your impoverished father, but it’s yours, Tiny. It’s yours!”


The mortar holding together the compound is literacy. There were only two jobs in the monasteries: garden­ing and copying books by hand.

Literacy is both an invitation into the compound and a shield. Where disability is concerned, literacy is steeped in cultural assumptions—that is, the disabled can’t really be as educated as they presume, can they? Or: are the blind actually reading? Or: do those neuro­divergent students really learn?

Literacy tests have always been employed to estab­lish deviancy—first with immigrants and people of color, now with the disabled. Jay Dolmage writes:

Authorities from doctors to immigration agents used literacy tests to establish baselines of deviancy. Kate Vieira writes that literacy is a “navigational technology that opens up some paths and closes off others, that orients and disorients, that routes and often reroutes. . . . It is also an infrastructure that regulates movement.” This metaphor of literacy as mobility (and orientation) is of utmost importance to the intersections between literacy and ability, illiteracy and disability. Literacy has been used to tightly control the movement and rights of dis­abled people for centuries; this deeply affects what literacy is and what it can do for anyone.

The blind were not believed capable of reading until the late eighteenth century, when Diderot pro­posed using a raised alphabet. A century later, when Helen Keller attempted to enter Radcliffe, the college authorities believed she was faking her literacy.

Jay Dolmage:

Like literacy, ability is defined by its inverse. It gains shape only when a negative prefix is appended, and without this prefix it has little to no social power. The concepts of disability and illiteracy might be seen to have developed in similar ways, at similar times, in the Western world, the prefixes being used with particular, and similar (perhaps connected), ends in mind.


See me in your mind’s eye, walking across the campus with my guide dog. I struggled all morning to get an accessible version of an academic article; I argued with a dean about the needs of a learning-disabled student whose accommodations didn’t happen in a timely way; I learned that a major renovation to an audito­rium won’t be accessible to wheelchair users—these things within a single morning. Now multiply this five-hour period by 365 days per year, minus college vacations—make it 276—then again, multiply by years. Do not think me rebarbative or an agitator. I am not a bellyacher. In this instance I’m walking the agora, head up, fleet of foot, holding ambitions for every disabled learner who stands at the portcullis.

Stephen Kuusisto holds a university professorship at Syracuse University. He serves as director of interdisciplinary programming and outreach for the Burton Blatt Institute, which advances the economic, civic, and social participation of people with disabilities. His latest book is Have Dog Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, published by Simon and Schuster.