Foss Publishes Book Review

Portrait of Professor FossProfessor of English Chris Foss has published a 1500-word book review of Jay Timothy Dolmage’s watershed work Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education in Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, one of the top two scholarly journals in the field of disability studies today.

The book’s charge is “not just to recognize where and how ableism happens, but to ask what the impact will be of exposing it, what the cost might be of assigning blame, and what the forces are that make it imperceptible, what the euphemisms are that disguise it, and how it comes to be normalized, even valorized in academia” (58). Dolmage sets up his argument in a superb Introduction that exposes “the university as a rhetorical space that holds a history of injustice in its architecture” (9).

After noting higher education’s inextricable imbrication with the shameful histories of eugenics and colonial science, Dolmage transitions into a disheartening assessment of the state of the university in the present day. Statistics on underused and ineffective accommodations (here, for faculty/staff as well), attendance and graduation delays, heavier debt, etc. for students with disabilities—combined with the frustrating realities of how overworked and underfunded disability resource offices continue to be—reveal in very sobering terms the persistent ableism still preventing so many disabled people from fully accessing, much less successfully navigating, the world of academia. What is more, Dolmage’s observation, “The programs and initiatives that are developed in the name of diversity and inclusion do not yet deliver tangible means of addressing the ableism inherent in higher education” (26), sadly is all too true.

For Dolmage, owing to the logic of the retrofit, “disability has become the Whack-a-Mole of higher education” (91), the latter’s “structural exclusion” both “abetted and allowed by forms of temporary, tokenized, and tenuous inclusion” (85). As he elaborates at the beginning of his fourth chapter, “Universal Design is not about buildings, it is about building—building community, building better pedagogy, building opportunities for agency.  It is a way to move” (118). At the same time, prone to “checklistification” (145) and the passive recycling of old initiatives (143-44), universal design is “as dangerous as it is useful” when it serves administrators’ “neoliberal justifications for cutting back on funding” (150). In the end, it is up to us to take up the mantle of Dolmage’s project (and its goal, as reiterated in the book’s final sentence, “to give [us] ways to change higher education” [191]) by building upon his indispensable groundwork.

Dolmage was UMW’s featured speaker here in August 2018, thanks to the generosity and support of Provost Mikhalevsky and Associate Provost O’Donnell. Dolmage’s book may be accessed for free online. His online appendix of resources aimed at giving “teachers some places to actually begin changing the classroom and the syllabus” (150) is also available online.