Yesterday, a story came out about a University of Guelph professor who had openly mocked a disabled student during lecture. This resulted in the targeted student leaving the room along with his aide. Many of his classmates followed suit. The professor in question has been placed on leave and the incident is being applauded as a victory for justice.
While the actions of the professor were abhorrent and he deserves to have been suspended, there is a lot of context that this story is leaving out in favour of celebrating the nondisabled students who walked out in solidarity with their classmate.
I wrote a twitter thread on this yesterday but based on some of the responses I got from it, I think that a full blog post is necessary.
This is only a news story because of the solidarity of nondisabled students. I wish nondisabled people understood how much power they have to improve or limit the lives of disabled people.
The story itself treats the abused student as a prop. They are not named and are never interviewed. The entire narrative is framed around the recollections of nondisabled people.
The sentiments expressed are generally positive and supportive but the issue is also clearly framed as a one off. One bad professor. The students imply they will stand against any other injustice. But will you?
More importantly, do you? The thing that makes the Guelph story unique isn’t that it happened. The more shocking thing is that it happened in public. Disabled students experience discrimination from professors regularly. I am willing to bet that professors refuse to accommodate disabled students daily. It just happens behind closed doors and they tend to use less inflammatory language.
Some professors write op-eds and publish academic articles advocating exactly that. Where were the mass walkouts in solidarity then?
Solidarity in the Guelph incident is positive but it’s important to put it in context. The stakes for protesting students were low. The professor was a sub. Students were risking walking out on a single lecture not the entire course for the semester. They were not challenging the actual course director who has control over their grades.
Would they have walked out if it had been the course director?
Would they have been willing to potentially sacrifice an entire credit?
As responses to my twitter thread have shown me, the professor in question is not popular. I’ve received several responses from his former pupils that are all along the lines of,
“Oh, I had him as a prof and he’s a massive douche”
That reinforces the idea that people who see this story interpret it as an isolated incident perpetrated by someone widely considered detestable. There is no consideration of whether his behaviour fits into a system of discrimination against disabled people in academia.
It is more comfortable to see his behaviour as wholly aberrant instead of understanding that the only thing surprising about it is that he did it so publicly. There are many more faculty members slowly tearing down disabled students in the safety of their offices.
Where is the protest over that?
The Guelph incident is tragic not just for the abuse that one student suffered but because the way it has been framed in the media allows people to believe such incidents are rare and that they are inevitably met with swift and effective push back when they do.
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