I have graduated with both my Bachelor’s and my Master’s from the same university. Each time, I chose to participate in the ceremony. I worked hard for my degree, so why shouldn’t I celebrate the achievement?! Now, it’s important to understand that I love my alma mater. The faculty and staff there are, as a whole, accepting and empowering individuals, who pushed me to excel and held me to high standards. I am extremely proud to come from such a diverse and welcoming environment. But even the most open place… the most accepting people… have their moments of disablism.
On a beautiful Sunday in May 2010, I graduated with my BS in Political Science. The entire ceremony went perfectly for me. Three weeks prior to the event, I set up the necessary accommodations. I made sure there was a spot for me in the row I would sit in, and a lift to access the stage. My name was called at the appropriate moment, and I made it through shaking hands without someone grabbing my joystick and running me off the stage. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, partly because the individuals in charge of access for the event listened to my needs and addressed them appropriately. They kept me informed and took my opinions and viewpoints under consideration. They not only accommodated me, they accepted me. Two and a half years later, however, I was not able to say the same.
I graduated with my Master’s of Public Administration in December 2012. I began contacting the necessary people weeks in advance to secure my appropriate accommodations. Very little communication was received this time, due to the fact that those in charge dealt with me previously and had the general idea of my needs. I arrived the morning of graduation and was greeted by my faculty marshal. He walked me through how graduation would go. I would walk in with my peers, and take my seat. This year, I would be sitting on the outer end of the first row of the graduate section. I was told this would be the only change in an effort to keep the isle clear. I had no problem with this, and was told the rest of the ceremony would go as it had last time. I took this to mean that, when my row stood and began proceeding through commencement, I would join them in my appropriate alphabetical location. I would get out of line only briefly to ride the lift up to the stage in time for my name to be called. I thought I would exit as I had entered, with my peers. Apparently, I was wrong.
Rather than provide me a seat in the first row of graduate students, I was placed in a row almost entirely by myself. My only companions were two professors and an undergraduate student in a power wheelchair. He was seated next to me instead of next to his other undergraduate peers. As the ceremony moved along, and it neared time to begin the march towards celebrating my degree, both my undergraduate companion and myself were whisked away to the lift. I was to wait there until my name was nearing. I was so irate with how we were being treated, but unable to advocate for our rights at such an inopportune time, that I almost missed my place. I walked across the stage. I shook hands and smiled brightly. Soon after, I noticed a gentleman in a manual wheelchair following the line amongst his peers, stepping out at the appropriate time to use the lift, and proceeding on. No special seating for him. I wanted once again to call attention to the moment, but I held back. The pomp and circumstance of the event must prevail, I told myself. Upon completion, I was shuffled out before my alphabetical place and left in a flurry of frustration and personal embarrassment.
While no one may have consciously denied me my rights, or those of the gentleman sitting next to me, they failed in so many ways. Did I not deserve to be seated near my peers? Did I not deserve to participate in the procession to the stage? How did the gentleman sitting next to me view these blatant segregated moments? I felt like the step child that no one wants to claim. Even worse, I failed myself that day. I failed to speak up. I failed to stand out. I failed to advocate for my right to the experience. The people I looked towards to provide equal access to graduation discriminated against me and denied me my experience, perhaps without even realizing their actions. And I let them.
I tell this long story because today is Blog Against Disablism Day 2013. And I made a promise to myself after graduation to never remain silent again when I witness disablism. When we stay silent about it, we are participating in it. And I will no longer participate in accepting less than I deserve. I will educate. I will empower. I will advocate. Happy BADD 2013!