Disability is…

Disability is the rebellion against normalcy, intentional or not. To exist outside the thin frame of defined ‘normalcy’ and demand equal treatment is a challenge to the entire concept of normal. It is acceptable to reside outside of normal as long as you are striving to lessen this gap. To exist outside of normal happily is a front, an offense against those who have worked for their entire lives to be seen as normal.
Disability is a social and political construct. Before entering Investigating Normal, I believed that a person could only be disabled by some event that occurred in their past, or some ongoing condition. It had never occurred to me that, in fact, it was society that disables these individuals due to its inflexibility and unwillingness to consider these less frequent but equally important cases when designing infrastructure or products. The only thing preventing a wheelchair user from entering a 1-step doorway is the designer who decided that the 1-step was necessary, but did not create a system for a wheelchair user to ascend easily.
Disability is the reminder that we are all fragile, temporary beings on this planet. Humanity collectively believes that it is immortal. Many individuals go through their day-to-day lives believing the same. They see others around them playing along and create a personal reality where there is always a tomorrow and there a few barriers to growth and happiness. However, the sight of a disabled person creates an unease within that person that is not easily sourced. I believe that one source of this discomfort is the inability to ignore the fragility of the human body; the inability to ignore the inevitability of breakdown, death, and decay that we will all one day experience. It is this flag that causes some aspect of this discomfort, and many people come to believe that this person must live a miserable life being reminded of this end everyday.
However, Disability is not a pitiful existence. Disability is only a different way of experiencing the world. As Alice Sheppard, an artist/dancer who happens to be a wheelchair user described during her talk on her experience, many of us will never experience a wheeled existence. Many of us seek out wheeled transportation, as thrill or efficiency. She lives it. She feels every push, every bump. She is much more in-tune with the force of gravity, with the texture of the ground. She knows many feelings that walking people will never experience. There is nothing wrong with Alice’s existence. It is only different.
Disability is up for debate. I remember some of discussions that arose after the last time we were asked to define what “Disability is…” , as well as the readings around Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip, where we could discuss in-depth what disability could mean. This was another ‘woah’ moment for me. Disability went from a medical definition, to a socio-political one, then broadened to a unformed, personal definition. I am excited to exit Investigating Normal without a single formed definition. I am excited to engage more and continue to morph my outlook on these ideas.

LGBTQ and OPEN at Olin

I recently sent out a survey asking students to answer a few questions about what sexuality they identify as and whether or not they considered themselves “out” to the community. The results confirmed some ideas that I have been noticing this year that have been bothering me. Out of the 117 responses that I received, a significant percentage of our population, 20% identified as LGBTQ. Olin has a heavy physical presence of LGBTQ students on campus. Unfortunately, this large population has little to no presence as an LGBTQ body. OPEN, the LGBTQ club on campus, has had almost no participation this year. As president, I really just want the club to exist as a place where people who identify as LGBTQ and allies can gather and be friendly every once in a while. This allows people to realize that they aren’t alone as an LGBTQ student, and allows the rest of the Olin community to realize that we are a large percentage of the population (maybe they should stop assuming they know people’s sexuality) and are all awesome people.

I have heard many people voice that the reason that they don’t attend OPEN meetings is because they feel like Olin is a place where LGBTQ treatment is not an issue. Everyone is cool with it. There is no need to try to continue to improve Olin’s openness to minority sexualities.

The fact is that Olin is not an ideal place for LGBTQ students. Although 20% of students identified as queer, another 11% were unsure or other. Of those students that identified as queer, unsure, or other, only 20% considered themselves “out” to the Olin community. 31% said that they were not out on campus or they were only out to a few close friends. Another 37% said that “coming out” was not important to them. I have personally encountered Oliners that faced confusion when they began coming out to their friends. Students are assumed straight unless otherwise stated, especially male students. Hetero-normative statements can be found in all areas of campus, perpetuating this assumed-straight idea and making many LGBTQ students uncomfortable. Wellesley asked students for their preferred pronoun when they enter orientation. No assumptions are made about gender or sexuality. Why can’t Olin have a similar culture?

Olin advertises itself as a diverse place open and accepting of all backgrounds and lifestyles. Along with gender, sexuality is another area that Olin is succeeding in creating a diverse campus. The issue is that it doesn’t feel that way due to the the inactivity of those students that identify as LGBTQ as a body. The stronger the presence we have, the less often hetero-normative comments and assumptions will be made. Olin students aren’t purposefully being close-minded, they just don’t realize that they are perpetuating ideas that go against what Olin stands for. By lowering these types of occurrences, we will create a community where those 17% of students who identify as LGBTQ but have not come out to Olin feel comfortable being themselves. Even if you are comfortable identifying as LGBTQ, or feel like it is not necessary to be an active ally, think about the Oliners who don’t feel comfortable fully expressing themselves on our campus. Do something to make this campus a better place to be gay.

I want to challenge people to do more, care more. Make Olin a more open place. If you identify as LGBTQ and didn’t see a purpose in participating in OPEN before, I hope you can recognize that participation shows others that Olin does care. That they have people to relate to. If you are an ally, and you want people to feel welcome, then show you care. Bring attention to hetero-normative comments and assumptions you come across. Be receptive when someone hints that they might identify as LGBTQ. Recognize that sexuality is a spectrum; people won’t fall into neat little boxes. Understand that just because someone else has never been attracted to someone of one gender, that does not mean that person never will. I challenge us as a campus to stop assuming.