It's only at the Bodleian that I am a cripple

December 15, 2006

Universities must go beyond equality schemes and change a culture that 'disables' people, says Christopher Baswell

A favourite acronym in American disability circles is Tab: "temporarily able-bodied". At some point - because of ill-health, accident or old age - almost every individual will suffer a serious physical or mental impairment. The temporarily able-bodied work hard to ignore this fact. Tab denial is reflected in the falsely clear division implied by the term "disability" and its anxious opposite, the (currently) able-bodied.

On December 4, pursuant to the Disability Discrimination Act of 2005, disability equality schemes were issued by every public institution in England and Wales. Yet even this flood of thoughtful and ambitious documents persistently assumes the bright line that divides You from Us, the Tab from the "already impaired"; so, too, does the document behind the schemes, the Statutory Code of Practice, which was issued by the Disability Rights Commission.

There are already much subtler models of analysis, which were born in British universities where the new field of disability studies started. The social model of disability - honourably noted but insufficiently used in the documents just mentioned - challenges the idea of disability as a stable and inherent condition specific to an individual. While acknowledging the reality of physical and mental impairments, it views disability as a situation created by a broader society through the choices it makes about its built environment, structures of learning, habits and refusals of inclusion.

My own impairment is paraplegia. Yet in the British Library I am able-bodied and can move about as easily as any other library user. At the Cambridge University Library I am occasionally disabled, but not much. In almost any part of Oxford University's Bodleian Library, however, I am a cripple, reduced to begging for help on the pavement outside.

Even if we factor in the challenges of history in an old nation with ancient institutions, social decisions still affect disability. "New Bodley" was built in 1939, but it continues to disable people far more than the slightly older Cambridge Library. By happy contrast, I currently work in a 17th-century Grade I listed building where York University's choices and financial investments render me mostly able-bodied.

Anyone who has negotiated access in British and American universities over the past 30 years knows that there is much to celebrate in terms of improved logistics and, to a lesser extent, in terms of attitudes. When I was admitted to the Yale Graduate School with a fellowship in 1975, the university - upon discovering the reality they faced - back-pedalled mightily; one reason, I later heard, was concern that a ramp to ease access would disturb the lovely bilateral symmetry of their library's main entrance.

Today, a person with mobility impairments can visit Yale's website, find clear access maps, and see a little dot marking that access ramp, which in turn prompts a pop-up window that offers information about nearby elevators and toilets.

British universities (and laws) run about a decade behind America's, but they are catching up fast, and their provisions are far more consistent than those found in the US's complex jumble of private and public schools, small colleges and huge universities. On both sides of the Atlantic, though, adaptations for invisible impairments (dyslexia, for instance, or deafness), lag behind the more obvious provision of ramps and lifts and texts in Braille.

Which returns us to the rainbow of impairments, widely distributed across the population, and the monolith of "disability". The Disability Rights Commission says that one quarter of the UK population has some sort of disability. Yet in 2003-04, only 2.3 per cent of employees in higher education declared a disability. Despite more than a decade of laws mandating equality, such figures suggest continued resistance to joining the still-stigmatised category.

Universities have often been the engines of social change. They should be again. They need to learn to think with greater complexity about unusual minds and bodies and how they operate and interact. When all of us recognise, then teach, the variety and ultimate universality of impairments, the socially constructed nature of "disability" will settle in people's heads. I hope that the next incarnation of disability equality schemes will eliminate as far as possible the very term and concept "disability" in favour of the range of impairments in which we all at some time share.

A final job for universities: give people with impairments the power of their history, an arena that remains very little explored before 1800.

"Disability" in the sense of physical impairment did not even enter the language until the late 1700s. What kinds of social and intellectual encounters with eccentric bodies and eccentric minds preceded that concept? Why do so many medieval depictions of crippled bodies seem at once so frank and untroubled? Give me the dignity of being able to learn just a little about my double, that crippled man who probably really did beg outside Duke Humfrey's Library when it first opened in 1490.

Christopher Baswell is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is honourary visiting professor at the Centre for Medieval Studies at York University.

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