Towards a better disability discourse at Duke

Who has the courage to be a disability activist at Duke? Or, to put it differently, who is willing to advocate for change within a culture that extols wellness, productivity, and ability above everything else? How much suffering and invalidation does a student have to endure before they proclaim, “Enough is enough!”, and turn to activism as the last resort?

This sense of frustration is shared by my peers within the advocacy space. They have to contend with limited student involvement on one hand and a lack of interest from administrators on the other. For them, people’s assumption that “disability is not here” creates a cultural bind that seems almost insurmountable. 

Jay Pande, former president of the Duke Disability Alliance, knows these challenges well. Speaking during an audio interview in 2017, he lamented that most Duke students were not aware of how someone with disabilities “accesses the world differently from what society accepts as the typical way.” “Overall,” the interviewer concluded, “Jay describes the scene at Duke to be one full of ignorance.” 

In terms of awareness, little has changed since then. According to The Chronicle’s first-year survey, only 19% of the Class of 2025 have heard of the Disability Community Space located in the Bryan Center. Among them, a mere 0.53% have visited the space.

The data stands in stark contrast to the number of students who have had experiences with short-term disabilities. In my case, it was a fractured finger that left me unable to use my dominant hand. For my friend, it was a twisted ankle that turned her trip from Perkins to the Physics Building into a difficult one. For both of us, these were the first time that the inaccessibility of our campus had personal impacts and thereby became salient.

But short-term injuries serve no more than temporary reminders of the frailty of our abled bodies, ones that are apt to be forgotten. Moreover, by thinking of disability as negative and undesirable, we rejoice in our recovery and celebrate our renewed ability to “fit in.” We regain the conviction that disability can and indeed ought to be “overcome,” all while perpetuating the same exclusionary prejudices that otherize disabled students.

The lack of awareness and concern is inextricably tied to this mode of thinking, which implicitly associates disability with the “most damaged, undesirable, shameful and unwanted parts of our humanity.” It is not my responsibility to identify accessibility issues, the thinking goes, because unlike disabled students I am independent, capable, and ultimately complete— illusions that we so desperately cling to within the culture of thriving and overachieving. 

Again, who has the courage anymore to be a disability activist at Duke, when doing so requires us to confront and accept our deepest vulnerabilities and dependencies?

Many students feel uncomfortable talking about disability. This discomfort is a sentiment that the disability community and its allies must combat. Their efforts must be devoted to fostering discourse and practices that challenge and expand current thinking about disability. This could take the form of discussion groups, campaigns, and multimedia projects that facilitate the sharing of personal narratives. Moreover, the establishment of a disability studies minor would go a long way to promote critical scholarship and active involvement. 

These practices cannot be replaced by “disability workshops” and mandatory awareness training. This suggestion reproduces the same attitude towards disability that they seek to transform. It is but a symptom, not a remedy, of the current culture of ignorance. 

That disability can be the basis for positive identity and culture is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable idea for many people. But these discussions have been ongoing since the proposal of the social model by Michael Oliver in the 1980s. He argues that disability has nothing to do with the body, but rather is caused by social organizations that take little account of people with impairments. There are also those who understand disability (like race and sex) as a historically contingent matrix of power that configures our practices toward certain political ends. 

The central insight these theorists provide is that there is nothing natural or biological about disability. Instead, the functional limitations that disabled people experience are termed impairments. These impairments, which can be distressing and painful in their own rights, need not give rise to disability so long as social organizations create inclusive environments and dismantle disabling barriers. 

Being disabled, then, is an identity bound by common social and political experiences. As such, identifying as disabled not only marks the personal acceptance of “one’s whole self complete with disability” but also is a political commitment that affirms shared experiences of oppression and collective resistance. 

As an activist, I care less about theoretical precision than how the adoption of these theories can empower disabled students to tell their stories without undue shame and self-blame. After all, it is precisely when more disabled students can share their perspectives on their own terms that we can look forward to a better disability discourse at Duke. 

Nondisabled students must help make this reality possible. When we begin to listen and absorb new insights, we not only break the culture of silence but also start to challenge the notion of disability as the unfamiliar, the unimaginable, and the unrepresentable. 

Special thanks to Lily Elman for her encouragement and critique.  

Billy Cao is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Fridays.


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