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Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education

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Academic Ableism brings together disability studies and institutional critique to recognize the ways that disability is composed in and by higher education, and rewrites the spaces, times, and economies of disability in higher education to place disability front and center. For too long, argues Jay Timothy Dolmage, disability has been constructed as the antithesis of higher education, often positioned as a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved. The ethic of higher education encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness, even as we gesture toward the value of diversity and innovation. Examining everything from campus accommodation processes, to architecture, to popular films about college life, Dolmage argues that disability is central to higher education, and that building more inclusive schools allows better education for all.

254 pages, Paperback

Published November 22, 2017

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Jay Timothy Dolmage

3 books5 followers

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5 stars
113 (59%)
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51 (26%)
3 stars
22 (11%)
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2 (1%)
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Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews
Profile Image for Bree.
250 reviews7 followers
August 4, 2021
Excellent book and extremely eye-opening. My sole criticism is that the author uses Jack Halberstam’s deadname when citing him (which is done only once), and while Halberstam isn’t too particular about what name people use for him (see his blog post "On Pronouns" for more details), it doesn’t send the greatest message.

Still very much worth your time, especially the last chapter's discussion of how popular media represents disability in collegiate settings. This should be required reading for all university faculty/staff.
Profile Image for Tara Brabazon.
Author 22 books318 followers
July 20, 2022
This is a powerful book, developing great arguments about Universal Design, multimodality and multiliteracies.

The scale of the ableism in higher education is effectively rendered. But there is a deep analysis of 'easy' ableism and 'easy' arguments about retrofitting higher education to ensure 'access' to our universities.

I was very impressed by the engagement with neoliberalism and the profit-taking imperatives in our universities.

Well written. Well researched. Well argued.
27 reviews1 follower
January 27, 2020
Excellent. This book and its findings will be with me for a long time.
Profile Image for Lance Eaton.
402 reviews27 followers
December 29, 2021
Dolmage explores the structural and institutional aspects of ableism that permeate throughout higher education's present and past. Simply put, the academy does little to include people with disabilities. At the core of this exploration, he illustrates how some bodies are upheld by these aspects and therefore, granted the means to study and pursue knowledge while other bodies are devalued and meant to be the objects of study, often with an insistence to dismiss or cure. It's a brilliant critique that first discusses how the rhetoric of institution spaces highlight the ways institutions create and maintain their spaces as spaces that are not accessible or made accessible through measures that draw attention to those in need of accessible measures (rather than a natural part of structures through practices like universal design).

He pivots into a critical discussion that highlights how Western science during the 1700s and 1800s simultaneously created eugenics, mental asylums, and the modern university. He shows how the concepts of eugenics (good and bad genes and bodies) showed up in both asylums' and institutions' approaches to whom was and wasn't let in while also creating physical spaces (institutional grounds) that mirrored one another in many capacities.

After this setup, he moves into five chapters that create an arc through how institutions and then the world at large deal with and re-presents disabled bodies on their campuses. The first approach is what he refers to as "steep steps"--structures of exclusion on campus that are in place that prohibit or make clear the type of bodies the institution wants on campus. These measures show up in myriad ways across campuses (in my own experience, I remember one campus I worked at where the VP of Students worked in an office that was not accessible by wheelchair). Next, he delves into institutions' attempts to retrofit spaces to include people with disabilities. His critique here highlights the fact that the retrofit is always poorly made, unnecessary draws attention to or creates a still-complicated process for the person with a disability. It reinforces the person does not belong rather.

At this juncture, Dolmage takes a chapter to explore the fictional student; the student that is created in various op-eds or institutional discussions that is a fraud or being done harm by an institution attempting to be inclusive. It draws upon numerous examples of how faculty, pundits, and institutions worry about a fictional student while simultaneously dismissing the real needs of real students. While an invaluable contribution to the book's discussion overall, this chapter in the flow felt a bit off (could have been earlier before the 3 chapter arc of steep steps, retrofitting, and universal design). Dolmage offers an interesting discussion of universal design for learning in which he both praises it as the hallmark while simultaneously seeing how easily UDL can be watered down and infused with neoliberal practices to make it largely meaningless (thus, doing nothing to actually include effectively students or faculty or staff with disabilities). The final chapter explores how disability on campuses shows up in popular films as a means of whitewashing and undermining the ways that it actually exists on campuses. That is because it appears inclusive in popular culture, few actually challenge academia to make it inclusive. In total, it's a damning and damn-good book that anyone interested in higher education should be reading. And since the book intentionally aims to be accessible, it has been published as an open access book so folks can go to the University of Michigan Press website and free download it (the audiobooks is also free on audible).
Profile Image for Gemington.
141 reviews1 follower
December 21, 2022
I really enjoyed engaging with this book. The author is critical, insightful and hopeful about disability studies and activism on campus. He presents options and solutions without reducing inclusion to quick fixes. His critique of the academy is necessary for all participants within it, students, admin, staff and alumni. The way he categorizes higher ed as institutions akin to prisons, psychiatric facilities, and other controlling spaces is evocative and merits deeper reflection. The role that universities play in creating, benefiting from, and excluding folks with disabilities is clearly laid out. We study others and, by turning them into the objects of our study, often disable them. I also appreciated the discussion about disability and faculty. While folks with disabilities may be the largest minority group in society, our higher ed landscape does not focus on these folks when promoting equity, diversity and inclusion in many contexts. This book is a bit dated now. I look forward to new perspectives on academic ableism in higher ed.
Profile Image for Bruce Cline.
488 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2022
Solid critique, but too much jargon, an odd detour into depictions of college life in lowbrow Hollywood movies, and no suggestion for solutions.
Profile Image for Erica.
59 reviews
February 25, 2020
Being a differently abled (a term I learned from this book as a wonderful replacement for the rhetorically negated “disabled”) academic, I was very interested in this book. After finishing, I think it should be required reading for every university employee.

The author takes an intersectional approach that probes the depths of ableim. He connects perceptions of disability to the disenfranchisement of BIPOC, women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups who have been connected to “feeble mindedness” and “biological inferiority” by eugenics, a subject still taught in universities today. The author takes off the gloves and explores the appalling history of the academy’s role in eugenics research, in which white colonialists experimented on indigenous peoples and other disadvantaged groups under the guise of science. There is more than a whiff of objectification in a culture in which those with physical, mental and developmental disabilities are the objects of study for professors more often than they themselves are the professors.

The author also does an excellent job probing the toxic rhetoric of ableism, and deconstructing the myth that inclusive space only exists in the static physical realm rather than being a dynamic place where bodies, emotions, ideas, and prejudices move. There is far more to inclusivity than ramps and assistive technology.

In short, this book pulls back the veil on an underexplored topic that encircles and is intertwined with all people who represent the other; the “objects” of diversity and inclusion initiatives more often than the recipients. From critiquing HR practices to limited pedagogical modalities, probing the “universality” of universal design and the psychological affect of space, this book contains many welcome insights that well-meaning people, including myself, are unwittingly shielded from by the dominant culture. The very architectural styles favored by universities even get a critical eye as symbols of oppression: the mountainous staircases and ornate gates that lead to the ivory tower are literal and figurative barriers far too often accessible only to the privileged few, rather than to the diverse multitudes.
Profile Image for Paul Eaton.
29 reviews2 followers
September 5, 2019
This is an important text for any critical scholar. It’s strength lies in framing disability in the academy as a historical and ongoing construction. It also ties ableist discourses and rhetoric to other systemic issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and eugenic ideology. This book will not offer you many solutions, but will open space for grappling with the complexity of ableism on campus.
Profile Image for Isabel.
6 reviews
July 12, 2022
Definitely an important read for all faculty, student support staff, and students working and learning in a university setting. The introduction is one of my favorite pieces of writing in disability studies yet. 4 stars because the rest of the book felt a little too redundant after reading the introduction, almost like it was trying to stretch the amazing content of the introduction for all it’s worth to fit the length of a full-length book, rather than adding much that was new in the remaining chapters. Also, despite the author explaining their commitment to write in plain language for access purposes, the language in the rest of the book after the introduction was still a little too elitely academic. Which would make more sense if the book weren’t explicitly claiming to be trying to maximize access by using plain language.

Still, the introduction was worth the entire book’s weight in gold, so for that alone I can’t recommend this book enough!
Profile Image for Amber + Casey.
69 reviews2 followers
August 1, 2022
Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education is a great introduction into the ways academia perpetuates ableist ideologies. Of course the book does not cover everything and things are left out and author Jay Timothy Dolmage is very upfront about their failures in the book.

The book is an easy read. There isn't difficult language in the book and descriptions are given to figures/images which I found very helpful. Any words used that might give pause are defined. The only thing I had to look up was some of the movie references.

Why might you read this book? I think it would be helpful in understanding how the institution called academia was built, what it's purpose is and how it relates to eugenics, the role academia has in rape culture, and it might be nice to learn that the academy isn't an agent of change, but rather a place for complacency.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Melissa Archibald.
52 reviews1 follower
April 6, 2022
Dolmage synthesizes a larger body of scholarship, making this book an excellent overview of ableism and its place in society and higher education.

I was especially intrigued, but not surprised, by the role that eugenics has played in academia's fraught relationship with ableism. I found this part of his discussion to be the strongest.

I also thoroughly enjoyed his examination of academic ableism's representation in popular culture.

Anyone in education, whether k-12 or college, should undoubtedly read Dolmage's book in order to confront their own prejudices (conscious or subconscious) and become a better ally.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
227 reviews3 followers
July 3, 2022
Oh my god - you’ve just got to read this book if you have any connection to education, especially higher ed. This book validates so much of my own experience, which is comforting/therapeutic in a strange way, but the content is also theoretically rich and intellectually satisfying. Wonderful introduction to a lot of current and relevant work in disability studies, and the accessible writing makes connections to a number of fields and clearly outlines the stakes. A lot of my favorite writers are cited which I took to be a good sign.
Profile Image for Itzai.
7 reviews
October 23, 2022
it was a pretty good book overall i think! some of the parts really resonated with my experiences. i thought it was rather easy to follow, what the author talked about didn't feel abstract or nebulous like it has happened with other books about disability/ableism i've read. AND there were also answers as to how to manage ableism in higher education which i found very useful, i feel like sometimes it's all questioning this and that but what can we do next? and dolmage gives options which is nice
Profile Image for Alyssa Chrisman.
110 reviews2 followers
January 20, 2018
This book is clear and has reshaped my perspective on education and disability. Although this book focuses on higher education, many of its concepts can also be applied to the K-12 school system. I recommend that everyone involved in education read this book.
Profile Image for Anna R. Myers.
17 reviews
May 22, 2021
This book was so informative and hopeful about the future of academia, it also described to a T my current experience with academia. I think the author did an amazing job at exploring academia and it's problems but also where it can improve in the future.
Profile Image for Nakarem.
348 reviews
November 30, 2021
It's free, it's interesting and I think it's a really good start when educating yourself about Ableism.
I definitely learned a lot and will try my best to continue educating myself and learning about discrimination in various forms and in various settings.
Profile Image for Melissa.
180 reviews
April 22, 2022
Potentially eye-opening book for the sordid history of academia. Would appeal most to theory/philosophy-minded folks, though it is fairly read-able. It felt repetitive at times, though, and some of the items analyzed didn't really resonate with me.
Profile Image for Katie Clemons.
18 reviews
November 17, 2022
Really important concepts that are essential for educators but I couldn’t stand the writing style. The author even said they were going to make a point to try to use accessible language and write in a way easy to follow but that never happened in my opinion.
9 reviews1 follower
April 23, 2022
Solid analysis and unique insights into the "geography of exclusion" in higher ed present in physical space but also pedagogy, assumptions about learners and notions of "accommodation". If you are involved in education in any way, this is an important read.
Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews

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