Monday, 26 February 2018

Is the writing on the wall?

At the top of this page, for the last five years, my blog header has announced that my job is to take notes in lectures at the University of Otago on behalf of students with disabilities. This is still the case this year – but it may not be next year. I love this job and I want to come back to it as long as I can, but I’m not sure there will be anything to come back to. I think the University (not the Disabilities Office but someone higher up) is trying to stealthily disestablish my position.

In mid-2012 when I started working here, I was given nine lectures a week – nearly twenty hours of work, since I have to edit the notes after I’ve taken them. Then from 2013 to 2015 it was more like fifteen or sixteen classes, dominated by dentistry, over thirty hours. Not quite full-time, but enough to save money for a holiday in Japan. In 2016 the hours dropped off a bit and I started an expensive course of dental treatment and my savings carried me, narrowly, through the summer. But then last year the bottom fell out of the student enrolment for the service I provide. From fourteen or so note-takers the Disabilities Office went down to two, of which I was fortunate to be one. Most concerningly, every one of the students enrolling had been enrolled in previous years; not a single one was new to the service. This year I’m back down to nine classes and, once again, all the student names are ones I’ve seen before. Sorry, let me rephrase that. Once again, both the student names are ones I’ve seen before. I gather I’ll have a few extra classes from a couple of additional students, but not every week. Something has gone wrong.

Apparently, according to my supervisor, the University’s official position is now that we shouldn’t be providing notes for people who don’t absolutely need them, because no-one’s going to be taking notes for them out in the real world and they need to practise doing it for themselves. I’m still not sure how that translates to absolutely nobody new signing up for note-taking; I suspect, but don’t know how I could find out for certain, that the University has stopped mentioning the service in their marketing or at Orientation or wherever my clients used to hear about it before. That means that when my current students graduate and leave, I – like a couple of hundred other Otago service staff members so far – will be out of a job.

(The other option, as I’ve been reminded since I first wrote this post, is peer note-taking, which is when the University pays another student in the disabled student’s class a lot less than they pay me to hand in a copy of their own notes. This has helped me out on occasions when I’ve fallen ill and not had time to arrange a swap with another professional note-taker. But it’s not going to be the same quality as what I do, because they don’t have the training I’ve had, they mostly don’t have my typing speed, they won’t have developed a good system of digital shorthand like I have, and being busy students they don’t have the time I do to devote to editing. Also, I’m told – I can’t substantiate this – if the disabled student and the student note-taker don’t get on, it’s not unheard-of for the note-taker to do bad notes on purpose to hand in while keeping the more accurate version to themselves. Hiring professionals does make a big difference. Switching to purely peer note-taking would still constitute a huge downgrade to the service the University offers.)

I know, I know, mine is not a neutral viewpoint. As both an employee whose livelihood depends on this service and a disabled person myself, I am obviously not going to feel very good about this. But frankly, the University’s reasoning is bullshit. It’s the same tired justification that’s always trotted out for denying accommodations to disabled people: “Take away the crutches and they’ll learn to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Well, see, the thing is, those are actually rather apt metaphors, but not the way their users intend. Taking away someone’s crutches and pulling people up by their bootstraps both, if you were to demonstrate them literally, have the same effect: the victim falls flat on their face.

But isn’t one of the goals of education to allow people to integrate freely in society and thus live life to the fullest extent of their capabilities? Absolutely. But taking away accommodations does the opposite of that. It’s true that the world outside the tertiary education sector doesn’t have many note-takers, but I would venture to suggest that that’s because the world outside the tertiary education sector doesn’t have many lectures. Dentists don’t have to type for hours every day, but dental students do. The University’s new policy will mean there’ll be people who couldn’t follow their dream career in dentistry because they couldn’t type; which, given Otago has the only Dental School in the country, is a gross dereliction of duty.

Some disability advocates declare that disability is “socially constructed”. This is neither false nor nonsense, but it’s so misleading as to leave people less enlightened after they’ve heard it than before, unless they’ve taken a cultural anthropology course or similar and learned what this progressive-intellectual shibboleth actually means. It emphatically does not mean that disability is all made up. It emphatically does not mean that people are only disabled because everyone around them treats them like they’re disabled. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Let me explain.

The word “disability” is often used as a synonym for “impairment”, but there’s a subtle distinction which is worth highlighting. Impairments are not socially constructed in any meaningful sense. An impairment is what you physically can’t do with your body that most people can, or can only do with great effort that most people can do easily. (I’m including your brain as part of your body, obviously.) A disability is what obstacles your impairment poses for you as you participate in society – as you work, as you study, as you socialize, as you consume entertainment, and so on. An impairment cannot be removed at will, or it wouldn’t be an impairment. To remove the obstacles to social participation that constitute a disability, society must accommodate impairments. People with impairments are disabled because society doesn’t acknowledge the impairments enough.

An example to make the distinction clear. Short-sightedness, long-sightedness, and astigmatism are all visual impairments. But only very severe forms of these conditions are disabling in our society, because the accommodations for the milder forms – eyeglasses and contact lenses – are accepted without question as normal. If your bank made you take your glasses off “so we can see your face properly” and then made you fill out forms in tiny print without them, then you’d be disabled. If you had to take them off to get your driver’s licence photo and then weren’t allowed to wear them while driving so law enforcement could match you to the photo, then you’d be disabled. If all eyeglass-frames came in one ugly, ill-fitting style, and the people selling them told you you should be grateful to have glasses at all, then you’d be disabled. If strangers and casual acquaintances came up to you in the street suggesting you’d be rid of the need for that contraption on your head if only you would try the new eye-strengthening course they’ve been doing (it’s called Sight Naturally, it’s based on ancient tribal colour lore, you never see the tribespeople in National Geographic wearing glasses, do you?), then you’d be disabled.

There’s a confusion here, by the way, which applies especially to mental and intellectual impairments. Lots of people say they’re in favour of helping people with such conditions. But when they say that, they’re picturing treatments which will wipe away the impairment and turn the patients “normal”. Failing that, they’d rather mentally impaired people disappeared behind institutional doors than be out and about on the street where decent people might bump into them (think of the children!) At a disabilities conference that I, yes, took notes for to earn a bit of extra cash last year, one speaker described dinner party conversations where she would mention that she worked in a mental health facility. “It must be hard keeping them contained. Was the woman who killed herself one of yours? You’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t such a drain on society.” Then she would reveal the truth – that she was paid to test the facilities in the capacity of a client. “Oh, but you don’t seem like you’re about to stab us!” “No, but the night is young.” The goal of mental health treatment, as of all disability accommodations, isn’t to turn the client “normal”. It’s to give them their life back.

From all this it follows that, if you remove a disability accommodation that was previously available, you are creating disability. You are disabling people who happen to have impairments. That stain will be on the University’s hands if my job disappears next year or the year after. I hope their lavish new landscaping project is worth it.

Meanwhile, I have the rather urgent concern of finding an alternative source of income. Because I’m disabled too. I’ve previously mentioned the social anxieties which make applying for work a terrifying ordeal for me. But that terror is upon me. The writing is on the wall.