Being disabled in academia can be difficult. Not just in terms of access to physical and academic supports but also in terms of the disability is presented in academic discourse. The social environment of universities can be toxic for disabled students and academics. So much so that some people feel that they have to leave. It is bad enough that we have to navigate and fight for accommodations. We shouldn’t be faced with bigotry in the classroom.
It is not entirely surprising that issues of disability are coming up in academia, I mean disabled people have existed as song as the rest of humanity. What is unfortunate is how disability is framed when it does come up and how poor representations are not questioned or contextualized.
Writer s.e smith (name left uncapitalized in line with author’s preference) wrote an article about why disabled people leave academia. In it ou profiles a woman who fought through the bureaucratic quagmire necessary for accommodations. She railed against but ultimately put up with issues in physical accessibility. It was not until she faced a professor who refused to contextualize a discussion of how disability is used as a metaphor for evil throughout literature, that she finally had enough.
Now it cannot be argued that disability has been used as a metaphor for evil throughout literature and media generally, and so it is a valid topic of discussion. It should however be questioned and contextualized in terms of the social position of disabled people. Disabled people are real and are not a metaphorical construct and any time a group of people are used to symbolize something, particularly something negative, people should absolutely ask, why? Failure to do that gives a historical and continuing trend of marginalizing disabled people legitimacy.
I have found myself in a classroom environment where negative feelings about disability were not only discussed but tacitly encouraged. It was during my undergrad and I was taking Political Science 100. At the beginning of the semester as I was perusing the syllabus and noticed the the Latimer trial was going to be discussed, I got worried. I read the associated reading and my worse fears were confirmed. The class was going to discuss the Latimer trial. A case involving the murder of a disabled child at the hands of her father, with only a biased news article as context.
First off I’ll start with the history of the Latimer case.
I was still a young child when Tracy Latimer was killed but the news coverage was so overwhelming that I couldn’t help but be aware of it.
In October of 1993, Robert Latimer (a Saskatchewan farmer) killed his twelve year old daughter Tracy, I was aware of the situation as soon as it hit the news. At the time I was to young to understand the nuances of the case but I was aware that Robert Latimer had killed Tracy because he claimed she suffered greatly from her cerebral palsy.
This concept troubled me as I saw a lot of similarities between myself and Tracy. I too lived in Saskatchewan and I also had cerebral palsy. I was aware of the basic differences as well. I knew Tracy had used a wheelchair and couldn’t speak but for me the connections were stronger than our differences.
It was the initial crime that unsettled me at first but as the trial progressed and the subsequent reporting on it through the years, the most disturbing thing about the case sadly is not that a child was murdered by her father but that he has gained almost folk hero status in Canada for his actions. People readily believed and continue to believe his assertion that he killed Tracy because he wanted to end her suffering. This narrative is so widely believed that though he was convicted of murder, people still defend his actions and Latimer himself has firmly positioned himself within Canada’s assisted suicide debate, which though his actions would still be illegal under our recently relaxed restrictions on assisted suicide, his presence in the debate gives him legitimacy.
When the Latimer trial is covered in the news and it still is even 22 years later, Tracy is almost always reduced to a non-being who was just a thing that was alive and suffering. Her father is almost always framed as a loving father who killed his daughter out of necessity to relieve her suffering.
That narrative did not ultimately sway the court (after a mistrial, retrial and his sentence being debated all the way to the supreme court). He was convicted of murder. However, in the court of public opinion, he is very much the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
This narrative however does Tracy a disservice, it entirely dehumanizes her and if you look past the lazy journalism it isn’t all that difficult to find holes.
Things that don’t generally enter the public discourse
- Laura Latimer’s (Tracy’s mother) own records refute the idea that Tracy had no quality of life. She described how Tracy was socially included in the family and clearly enjoyed this social engagement.
- Robert Latimer refused to allow Tracy to have a feeding tube despite the fact that Tracy had difficulty eating, was malnourished. and a feeding tube might have allowed for more effective pain management.
- Robert Latimer had a phobia of medical intervention. It is not hard to see how this fear might have influenced his perception of his daughter’s life.*
I was aware of the more contextualized reality of the Latimer case and was more than a little concerned about how the the class would approach the case or why it was being presented at all. I contacted the professor with my concerns and provided sources that gave the case more context. She rejected my concerns and refused to provide the class with more context. She claimed that nothing negative would come of the limited view of the case being presented.
In reality on the day that the Latimer case was presented in class, I was surrounded by ableist sentiments that deviated from the specific Latimer case. Comments were general “well of course people like that would want to die” “If I was like that I would want to die”
I tried to give context in discussion and explain that disabled people do not as a group universally want to die and that many of us are perfectly happy with our lives. Even disabled people with conditions considered severe. I was roundly ignored and accused of having an unhealthy bias.
Turns out the professor not only believes the miscarriage of justice narrative of the Latimer trial but intended it to show that just because the outcome of the trial was in line with the law that it was not just.
To this day I regret not filing an official complaint over the class. Not because she holds a differing opinion from me but because she created an entirely toxic and unsafe environment in her classroom.
I also know that she is not alone in using the Latimer trial in this way. I have at least one other disabled friend who found herself in a similar classroom experience. The discussion just as bad. In her case however when she brought her concerns to the professor, he apologized and tried to contextualize the conversation in the next class.
The willingness to frame the disabled experience through the Latimer case is problematic outside of the harm it does to individual disabled people who happen to be in those classes because it happens when we aren’t there to try and defend ourselves as well.
This came into sharp focus for me one day on Facebook when I was trying to explain why many disabled people have issues with bioethicist Peter Singer (who has argued that disabled children should be euthenized or that disabled people should be denied health care). An acquaintance mentioned the Latimer case as a defense of why killing disabled people without their consent might in certain circumstances be acceptable. He presented it as a given, that it was right to kill Tracy. That mentioning the case was enough of an argument in itself. When I refused to accept such an unnuanced argument he said “well we studied it in one of my Philosophy classes” and my heart sank. I then disabused him of his narrow understanding of the case. He was then forced to defend nonconsensual euthanasia through hypotheticals that had nothing to do with disability “well what if you are in a war and your friend has been gut shot, is going to die and there is no medical treatment available?” kind of scenarios. Things that deviated so far from the original discussion as to be irrelevant to it.
The social atmosphere that universities build for disabled people is just as if not more important than the physical accessibility of the academic space. The key thing here is that this is true whether disabled people are present or not. Considerations of how disabled people are presented in course content and discussion should be considered without a disabled person actually having to be present because eventually those people in those classes will likely be faced with an actual disabled person. Building an inclusive space doesn’t just mean when the marginalized group is present. It means that when they do show up, people won’t have to fight to not be excluded socially or physically.
This does not mean ignoring things like the history of disability in literature or the Latimer trial. Disabled people deserve to have their history and social context be a part of academic discourse. We however don’t deserve to be treated to one sided arguments that devalue our lives and experiences.
*reference: Enns, R. (1999). A voice unheard: The Latimer case and people with disabilities. Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood Pub