These last months have underscored the United States’ long-standing willingness to leave some people behind. As I write this sentence, COVID-19 has claimed at least 130,000 lives in the U.S. and shows no signs of abating. These losses have been disproportionately borne by Black and brown families; here in Arkansas, from where I write, Black people "are three times more likely to die of the virus than white” people, and 70% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in our hardest-hit counties are Latinx or Marshallese (where they account for 20% of the population). Meanwhile, the President is publicly pressuring state and local governments to reopen schools—putting millions of teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff members at risk, to say nothing of the potential harm to children and their families, or to the childcare workers whose labor will enable parents of young children to return to work.
So our work together this week begins from a place of real trauma, national and global and local and personal trauma, trauma that is new for some and longstanding for others. It begins, as well, from the sense that we need to take up again questions about the care we offer our students as they enter our (physical or virtual classrooms): questions about who that care extends to, and who our classrooms and communities may have been “comfortable leaving behind,” to borrow Jess Mitchell’s phrase.
Against this backdrop, what will it mean to create classrooms and syllabi—all the work we design for teaching—that manifest care? Care for ourselves, care for our students, care for our communities? Nel Noddings writes that caring involves our attention, redirecting our energy “toward the needs and wants of the cared-for”. What will our syllabi look like when our energies are directed toward leaving no one behind? And lest that question sound like another invitation toward burnout, let me underscore at the outset that we, as educators, are part of the communities our syllabi can create and care for. So as we think about this workshop, spread out over space and time, I want us to try to think about care in the way that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes it: as “a collective responsibility that’s . . . deeply joyful,” something that “lifts us instead of abandons us, that grapples with all the deep ways in which care is complicated” (Care Work 33). To think well about care in this moment, we need to learn from the work of disability justice activists, the Black, brown, queer, and trans organizers who have been fighting for justice for their communities and building networks of mutual aid and caretaking—ones that support the well-being of all involved, even in conditions of scarcity. As they might say to us, they’ve been here before. I can’t think of anything better than to let their dreams lead us as we think about our syllabi, for the fall and beyond.
In what is below, I’m going to try to capture some of the brilliance and creativity of the disability justice movement. I want to name from the outset that I am not, myself, one of the organizers and activists mentioned here. Rather, I come to this work from my own position as a chronically ill/disabled person working in the academy, who wants to follow the leadership of these organizers as I work to remake my own classes and syllabi in ways that might live up to the dreams of disability justice.
A good place to start is with the working definition of ableism Talila (TL) Lewis has developed in conversation with Dustin Gibson and others:
ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re] produce, excel and "behave." You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.
Let’s highlight some sections of this:
Ableism runs on ideas about
which are deeply rooted in
And these ideas determine who and what is valuable and worthy—in a given culture, system, society, school, or classroom. Implied here is that they also determine who is not valuable or worthy in those same systems. They determine who belongs, who stays, who advances, who is hanging on for dear life, and who can be “left behind.”
What I think is so important about this definition is how it clarifies our thinking about the intersections between disability and racialization, gender norms, and other discriminatory structures that govern our everyday lives. “Ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity” (and the environments they create, the systems they support) authorize excluding disabled people; these ideas originated in, and are sustained by, “anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism, and capitalism.” Ableism and racism are deeply related, even if they don’t always fully overlap. The same is true about other axes of oppression. Where society makes choices to prefer some bodies and minds over others, ableism is there, drawing on repertoire from racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like.
And as it asks us to see ableism as something with deep roots and strong connections in other forms of oppression, this definition of ableism also pushes us to think about when and where questions of disability, ability, embodiment, and access come up in our syllabus. For a lot of people working in higher ed, questions about access or disability come up under the heading of “accommodations”—those emails from the Office of Disability Services telling us that Student A needs time and a half on her exam, or that we have to find a notetaker for Student B. But this definition of ableism pushes us to think bigger about disability—to see that the logics that shape what bodies belong in our classroom are at work in lives well beyond the cases that come to us with their paperwork neatly filled out, authorized by doctors and bureaucrats as “reasonable” deviations from the “norm.” Instead, ableism can be found in a lot of places in our classrooms—in our assumptions about what a “normal” student should be able to get done and when; in our privileging of certain kinds of responsive/neurotypical affect; in our expectations about what it takes to be excellent (whatever that means). Ableism is there in the sense that legal accommodation requests are a “burden,” but it’s also there in the moments when faculty demand that their students get doctors’ notes or “documentation” for excused absences or accommodations. It’s there shaping the access students have to the world of accommodations and excuses, depending on whether or not they have health care, experience medical racism, or have an illness that is difficult or time-consuming to diagnose. It’s there in the decisions institutions are making to reopen in-person classes in the middle of a pandemic because “most young people won’t get very sick” and in the idea that people without childcare can just work as if nothing’s changed and in the silence about how professional-class productivity depends on the risks put to childcare workers, many of whom are Black and brown women who are woefully underpaid. And it’s there, too, in theories about “grit” and “grind culture,” in the deeply entrenched norms of working nights, working weekends, working for “the love of it,” “getting it done,” that make it possible for institutions to get so much from us, and that we normalize for our students when we say we are “preparing them for the real world.”
Disability justice has other dreams to offer. Here is one version of those dreams, from Patty Berne, one of the founders of Sins Invalid, a disability justice and performing arts collective:
A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them . . . Disability Justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon the legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance within a thousand underground paths, igniting small persistent fires of rebellion in everyday life. . . . There has always been resistance to all forms of oppression, as we know through our bones that there have simultaneously been disabled people visioning a world where we flourish, that values and celebrates us in all our myriad beauty.” (quoted in Piepzna-Samarasinha,_Care Work_21).
What I love about this statement is how it points us toward a vision of “a world where we flourish”—the “we” here referring to disabled people, but also to all of us who are embodied, who “have strengths and needs that must be met.” Berne’s vision is a lovely counterpoint to what Piepzna-Samarasinha, writing with other disabled colleagues, has called the “traditional format” of access, where access is a “service begrudgingly offered to disabled people by non-disabled people who feel grumpy about it” (Care Work 16-17). Mia Mingus has similarly pushed us to think beyond access in its traditional forms:
When I say “liberatory access,” I mean access that is more than simply having a ramp or being scent free or providing captions. Access for the sake of access or inclusion is not necessarily liberatory, but access done in the service of love, justice, connection and community is liberatory and has the power to transform. . . . I want us to not only make sure things are accessible, but also work to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place.
For Mingus, liberatory access gets at the root of the systems that ableism supports and sustains. Far from being “one neat thing” we can do to our syllabi, real access marks a bigger shift—one that pushes us to undo ableist ideas and ways of valuing people and their bodies. For us as educators, access that means captions, yes; ramps, absolutely—but also a commitment to work against the systems that value people based on their normalcy, their productivity, and their “excellence,” defined in ableist terms. It means expanding our classrooms to welcome the varied forms human embodiment can take; to planning for the needs of our different and complicated bodies; to modeling for our students our own commitment to “honouring the whole humanity of everyone” in the way we design our classes for our students and for ourselves.
When it arises from a commitment to see everyone flourish, access can become “a collective joy and offering we can give to each other,” Piepzna-Samarasinha writes (Care Work 16-17); something that builds a world where we are collectively ensuring that all of us flourish. As Lydia X. Z. Brown writes, “the creation and the sustaining of just, equitable and life- giving, loving societies and worlds . . . can only be achieved by confronting and ending all systems of oppression, in understanding how they are interlinked.” This commitment, as Mingus puts it, “is another term for love.”
If that feels like an impossible dream, let me suggest that it’s the direction we need to be heading, especially at this moment in the history of the world. When we are surrounded with so much injustice and need, and seemingly so few resources within ourselves to meet them, we need to make sure that our dreams stay big enough.