Being the Elephant in the Room

By Monica Silny

It is time to address the elephant in the room, and unfortunately, it’s me. Allow me to explain: I have Muscular Dystrophy and use an electric wheelchair full-time, and with that, it’s obvious to say I am an individual who is disabled. However, don’t take my opening remark out of context; I am not the issue that needs to be addressed. You see, society as a whole, including our near and dear Pitt, has an internalized mindlessness about individuals who are disabled and their needs.

For example, in nearly every lecture hall or classroom I enter, there is nary an accommodating desk I can use. Now, I’m sure I could put up a fuss and ask for proper desks in every room (and I assure you, I’ll get to it after these thousands of calculus problems stop taking up all of my time), but the main problem is that they aren’t there in the first place. Usually, I am left in an awkward corner of the room with an awkwardly turned-around makeshift desk or using my lap as a table. People stare, and I have become the elephant in the room.

While the University of Pittsburgh prides itself on its diversity on campus, students who are disabled are an extremely excluded minority. With the number of disabled people there are in the world, you would find this surprising. According to WorldBank. com, about one billion individuals in the world have some kind of disability, and one fifth of those individuals have severe disabilities that cause mobility issues. If there are so many of us, there should be more standard classrooms and dormitories that accommodate our needs. Unfortunately, it goes much deeper than the excuse that not many persons who are disabled are applying to Pitt.

According to the National Center for Education, out of all the students attending a public 4-year institution for post-secondary education in the United States, 11 percent of those students are registered as disabled.  The majority of these disabilities are invisible disabilities such as psychological illnesses, learning and cognitive disabilities, and ADD/ADHD-related conditions. Of the 11 percent of disabled students enrolled in a public 4-year institution, 10 percent have conditions that render their mobility in some way. To many people, this news would be shocking, but if you live with a severe disability then you know why it is this way.

Throughout history prior to the mid-1970s to 1980s, individuals with disabilities were shut out of society and usually hidden from the public eye. Families would send their disabled children away to be institutionalized for the rest of their lives. Those who decided to take care of their disabled children often kept them in the house. It was rare to go out with friends or go to school, let alone a college. After all, it wasn’t until the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 that workplaces and universities were required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees and students with disabilities and imposed accessibility requirements in public spaces.

While our times have changed, it is unfortunate that the mindsets of individuals with disabilities have not. Even people with disabilities who are raised in supportive environments have doubts about their capabilities to attend school or join the workforce because of the lack of understanding, mindfulness, and accommodations among able-bodied people. There is often no push for persons with a disability to strive for any other goal other than “being healthy.” Plus, with so many public spaces that remain inaccessible, the only safe place a person with a disability may know is home, so they stay there.

People who are disabled are tired. We are tired of being expected to stay quiet and stay at home and strive for nothing but being “such an inspiration.” We have lives that we want to live, and the smallest obstacles make that hard. There needs to be a push. Mainstream feminism has often perpetuated ableism, but now we have a new wave, a fourth wave, a movement of intersectionality that includes disabled individuals. If feminists can call out misogyny and sexism, then they can call out inaccessibility and ignorance on ableism issues.

It’s on able-bodied people, too. If you are waiting by the elevator and a person who is disabled arrives, let them in first. Worried about there being no room for you? Wow, it sure is lucky you can use the stairs. Instead of using the accessible single person restrooms located on campus, take the extra 10 steps and go into the typical restroom, because frankly, individuals with disabilities (along with non-binary and transgendered persons) don’t have time for you to be taking up spaces made for them. If the wheelchair lift on the 10A is broken and it takes a person with a disability 15 minutes to get on the bus, don’t whisper cruel things under your breath towards them; instead be mad that none of the stupid lifts work on ANY of the 10As. And for gosh sake, if there is a person with a disability awkwardly sitting in an awkward part of the classroom, don’t stare; after all, I have no desk.

Monica is a first-year student at the University of Pittsburgh. See more from this month’s issue here.