What Two Physically Disabled Students Want You to Know

After injuring my knee and crutching around campus for a few days, I started to think about the difficulties that students with mobility issues must face as they go to classes, meetings, and events. I decided to reach out to two experts, Erin Davenport '18 and Liv Liccione '19, to get some informed perspectives. I wanted to know whether they thought Davidson was accessible, and how we as a campus could work to make it a better environment for students with physical disabilities. I arranged to meet them at Campus Summit on a Monday afternoon for an interview.

Her Campus: What’s your experience with accessibility (or the lack thereof) on campus?

Liv: Accessibility at Davidson is not bad. It’s not hard to get around the main buildings like Chambers, Union, and Wall. But places like Turner and Campus Summit are not wheelchair accessible.

Her Campus: I wish I had known that before I asked you both to meet me here! My bad.

Erin: I don’t think most people realize that Nummit is a tricky spot for disabled students to access. But yeah, basically, the things that enrich your life as a student are not accessible. Campus culture is difficult for physically disabled students to participate in. What can you do if you can’t dance for an hour? Or stand at F? 

Liv: Pretty much everything down the hill is inaccessible.

Erin: Another issue is the concept of spontaneity. People make plans in the spur of the moment. But I need time to get places. I need to plan out my days in advance so I know I’ll have enough energy for the things I need and want to do. At the end of each day, I’ve been run ragged. If you’re not familiar with spoon theory, look it up. That explains it well.

Erin Davenport '18

Liv: With a chronic illness, you never know when you’re going to have enough energy. It’s unpredictable. So sometimes I have to cancel even for things I’ve planned.

Erin: If you think about it, the quintessential Davidson moments are inaccessible. In self-selection, you run around. The cake race is all about running. So is flickerball. The community walk (during orientation) can only be done by students who can walk long distances. Orientation is hell.

Liv: Frolics is an absolute nightmare.

Erin: Anything that revolves around drinking doesn’t work for me, because it causes imbalance.

Liv: Drinking and chronic illness do not mix well.

Erin: Formals are also difficult. I can dance for a maximum of 10 minutes, and then I’m stuck sitting around. Also, a lot of people invite their crushes to formals. But if I was going to take a crush, I’d have to explain my disability to them and what I can and can’t do at formal. That’s a pretty heavy conversation to have at the outset. Super awkward.

Her Campus: What about the PE requirements? Is it difficult to choose a gym class that will work for you?

Erin: I had to take the nutrition and the mindfulness class. There were no other options for me.

Liv: Me too. It’s pretty telling that we ended up taking the same ones. And for the team sport, I would show up to flickerball games and sit on the sidelines. Actually, I would lie on the grass.

Erin: Also, the PE classes have no descriptions so it’s hard to know what you’re signing up for.

Liv: Another difficult thing is how I have to put my hand up in class all the time to tell the professor that I need something. It’s a process of constant self-advocacy, and it gets tiring. I don’t want to attract all that attention to myself, but I need to because of my disability.

Erin: If you don’t, you suffer in silence.

Her Campus: Tell me about your interactions with people who have more limited understandings of disability.

Erin: They’ll frame walks in terms of minutes. I’ll ask how far it is, and they’ll tell me it’s a 10-minute walk. But I really needed them to phrase it in terms of distance. Because what would be a 5-minute walk for someone else could be a 25-minute walk for me.

Even worse, some people understand disability in terms of pity. I will refer to myself as disabled, and they will respond, “Oh honey, I don’t think of you like that.” That frames disability as something terrible, and it also seems like they are assuming that I mean I have a mental disability, not a physical one.

Her Campus: What are some other examples of microaggressions that people have said or done at Davidson?

Erin: At the Black Lives Matter rally around the flagpole last year, a few students said “Look around and see who’s not here,” indicating that whoever didn’t show up didn’t care about black lives. But showing up is not just about being there. Because I couldn’t physically get there, but I do show up in other ways. In activist circles, there’s a vilification of people who don’t come to marches, protests, and rallies-- but some people don’t come because they can’t come.

Liv: People tell me I’m “too young and healthy” to be taking the elevator.

Erin: Me too. And sometimes when people see my disabled parking pass they say, “Did you steal that from your grandmother?” One time an old white man followed me into Starbucks and yelled at me for parking in the disabled parking space. In the middle of the coffee shop.

Liv: People tell me, “You seem like you’re walking fine. Why do you use that scooter sometimes?”

Liv (and Steve) with the TARDIS

Erin: They say, “It can’t possibly be that bad.” And one time, an administrator asked me “Why are you using a golf cart? I thought those were for disabled people.

Liv: And they ask invasive questions. This one girl saw Steve (my mobility aid) and practically shouted “Why are you using that scooter?” in front of everyone.

Her Campus: It’s not like there aren’t other things to ask you about. I mean, you have purple hair!

Liv: If you’ve never met me and you come up to me demanding to know about my mobility aid… what’s wrong with you?

Erin: Another awful thing people ask is “Have you always had that? Were you ever normal?” Or “That must have been so hard for you.”

Liv: People can also be really patronizing. One time this woman patted my head when I was on Steve.

Erin: Sometimes people sit on my golf cart and smoke there. It’s such an invasion of my space. Also, sometimes people just jump on my golf cart when I’m going somewhere without even asking. Do not treat my disability as if it’s this fun, convenient ride for you.

Liv: My mobility aid is an extension of my body. So when people leave trash in the basket of my scooter, I get really ticked off. Steve is not a garbage can. If you wouldn’t stuff something into my hand, don’t put it in the basket of my scooter. 

Erin: Professors think that because they’ve seen me in class, in the world of Chambers, which is accessible, they understand my entire life. They don’t label me as disabled when I was sitting in their class, so they make weird comments when they see me in my golf cart.

Liv: I don’t want to give you the impression that Davidson is terrible. The Academic Access and Disability Resources Office is great. The institution as a whole handles things really well. It just seems like there’s a lack of understanding and awareness among students and faculty. Something I’ve noticed at Davidson is that people are great at advocating for groups that they’re not a part of, especially across racial lines. But it seems like disability is not on their radar. 

I’m not meaning to compare levels of oppression or anything of the sort, but rather trying to demonstrate the lack of awareness of disability as a social issue on campus as opposed to awareness of other marginalized groups.

Erin: I agree.

Her Campus: Are there students trying to change that? Like is there a student organization centered around disability awareness, rights, or resources?

Liv: It’s called LEAD: Leadership, Empowerment, and Advocacy for people with Diverse abilities. I’m the head of it, actually. We’re hoping to host more events in the future.

Her Campus: In what ways do professors who lack an understanding or awareness about disability affect your experience as a student?

Liv: To be fully accepted by people who do understand the limitations you have, you almost have to be so exceptional that they think it’s worth making exceptions for you.

Erin: You can’t give them any reason to doubt you when you have to miss class.

Liv: Yes. In order for them to be willing to accommodate you when you need it, you have to have a good record. It takes time to build that trust with professors. And even with friends.

Erin: I do have hope, though. I think as a society, we’re starting to move from a medical model and understanding of disability (something’s wrong with you and we need to fix it) to a social model and understanding of disability (social barriers create disability). People’s understandings of disability are so culturally rooted. For example, glasses, which are a tool used to help out with a physical impairment are not seen as a marker of disability, while a cane, which is also a tool used to help out with a physical impairment, is seen as a marker of disability. Think about it.

Liv: I like that. I’m going to use that.

Her Campus: That’s insightful! Well, I think we’ve covered a lot here! Thank you so much for your willingness to talk about such a personal issue and to impart your wisdom to the Davidson community.

 

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