Disability and Graduate School Considerations

Helen de Cruz has a great post up at NewAPPS that discusses, among other things, why graduate students might opt to attend unranked programs. 

Another, often overlooked, consideration in play for some graduate students is disability. Some campuses are more friendly and accommodating to students with particular kinds of disabilities, some local communities have more resources than others, some states have policies that make it easier to be funded by vocational rehabilitation than others, some states (in the U.S.) provide tuition waivers to students with certain disabilities, and so on.

In my case, by chance I ended up at an M.A. program in philosophy that happened to be down the hall from one of the only linguistics doctoral programs in the country specializing in American Sign Language linguistics. Many of these linguistics doctoral students were highly experienced and *extremely* skilled signed language interpreters, some even had interests in philosophy. That they were also graduate students who had an understanding of what it is to be a graduate student was a significant bonus! When it came time to think about applying to doctoral programs, one huge consideration for me was interpreter pool quality at other universities. A good number of my graduate school interpreters are now top scholars in the fields of signed language interpreting and/or ASL linguistics, and by that time, I was keenly aware of how good my interpreter pool was. I was also concerned about having to train a new pool of signed language interpreters in the ASL philosophy lexicon I had developed with these interpreters.

Another factor was the presence of deaf academic peers. I knew of just one signing deaf philosopher in a doctoral program (who turned out to be the first signing deaf person to obtain a doctorate in philosophy in the *world*), but the linguistics program at my M.A. university had a tenured deaf professor and deaf graduate students, which gave me a cohort of deaf colleagues who provided support when various academic and professional institutions and entities acted in ways that were discriminatory (and in many cases, illegally and in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act). Please note: the APA never refused or resisted my accommodations requests, but plenty of others did.

There were also resource constraints; when I began my M.A. program, there was just one CART (real-time captioning) provider in the entire state, and so I was faced with some difficult choices about accommodations based on these constraints. The university was willing to pay for this accommodation — the problem was that the CART provider had other business obligations and could not caption many of my classes.

Providing accommodations for graduate students with disabilities is highly variable depending on the individual’s particular accommodations and the resource constraints that a university is faced with, but I suspect that how well a graduate program or university addresses questions about disability will also have some bearing on a potential graduate student’s decision to apply to a program or to accept an offer to enroll in a program. Whether a university is wealthy is not a sufficient basis for making this decision — you may still end up spending an enormous amount of time fighting with the university over your request for accommodations. This observation is not ancient history: as recently as a few months ago I spent dozens of hours and over one hundred emails trying to get one of the wealthiest universities in the world (one with a current endowment valued over 20 billion dollars) to pay a couple hundred dollars for signed language interpreters at an invited talk I gave. My request for accommodations was never resolved by the university; instead, a very generous philosopher used personal research funds to cover the costs of my interpreters. Contrast this with the response of a state university that provided interpreters to me for the following day’s invited talk. There was no resistance to paying for accommodations and we figured everything out in just three emails.

Finally, the presence of a critical mass of people with similar disabilities in the local community can also make a difference in increasing accessibility in the broader community, which may be another factor in choosing a graduate program. Think of this as disability geography — many of us are aware that some places have a reputation for having good accessibility for people with certain disabilities. In the case of deaf people, Austin,TX, Rochester, NY, and Washington, DC come to mind as places with a critical mass of deaf people — what this means in practical terms is obtaining interpreters and CART (captioning) at public events is more common, and less time is expended on getting these accommodations. So one could actually *have* a social life (inasmuch as this happens in grad school) instead of devoting a significant chunk of one’s time advocating for accommodations in the local community. One could, say, attend a play with one’s young children and have access to the play, and thus be able to talk with one’s children about the play we’ve just seen, instead of giving one’s children yet another a lesson on how to argue with stage managers about promised disability accommodations that never materialized, despite the email printout in your possession that assures you of said accommodations.

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Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

Just another deaf academic/advocate/activist blogging about life.

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