(Re)Producing White Privilege through Disability Accommodations

By Ashley Taylor, Michael D. Smith, and Lauren Shallish

Students walking with their backpacks
Photo by Stanley Morales from Pexels

This piece is part of our Spark series: Access and Gatekeeping in the Academy

“As a given right of the individual White person, whiteness can be enjoyed, like any property, by exercising and taking advantage of privileges coextensive with whiteness” ( Zeus Leonardo & Alicia Broderick, 2011)

During a conversation about an upcoming student teaching placement with a white, cis student teacher, the student raised concerns about teaching in a nearby urban school district. Despite repeated discussions about urban placements as centers rich with examples of cultural and linguistic wealth and transcultural literacies, the rigor of the student’s preparation, affirmations of the typical pre-student teaching nerves, and appeals to our ethical and moral obligation to teach all students, the student teacher steadfastly held to the original position that teaching in that space would simply be overwhelming. Eventually, the student submitted medical documentation in response to the assigned teaching placement, stating, “An urban teaching placement would be too triggering for my anxiety.”

As scholars of critical disability studies and teacher educators, we are dedicated to advocacy on behalf of disabled (and multiply minoritized) students. Because of this, we find ourselves in tension with a pattern that we have noticed in our teaching and advising. Namely, the trend of white students deploying disability language and documentation to distance themselves from encounters with Black communities and experiences. Such actions obscure the very white privilege that they are leveraging. That is, in multiple circumstances, we find that whiteness is used to coopt and otherwise colonize the mechanisms of disability accommodation in higher education to serve its own white supremacist gatekeeping ends.

Constructing Disability in Higher Education

While approximately 20% of the U.S. college population identifies as disabled — and there is statistically similar representation across racial groups — students continue to experience barriers to access, participation, and belonging across college campuses. Inadequate disability services, untrained (or even hostile) faculty and staff, and social stigma continue to reinforce ableist attitudes and gatekeeping structures in higher education.

A young Black elementary student working on a class project
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

And this is all after they get to college. Depending on what disability label they are assigned in K-12 schooling, students’ preparation for college, self-conceptions of their own “smartness” or “goodness,” and trajectories for post-school outcomes vary widely — a dynamic that is further complicated by race and class. It is well documented that students of color experience the most restrictive general and special education settings while simultaneously being subjected to disproportionately harsh discipline and high-stakes diagnosis. Moreover, elementary and secondary educational institutions are characterized by adherence to a standard of normal, in both academics and behavior, that is equated with whiteness. One might argue that the disproportionately low representation of students of color with or without disabilities in higher education is borne from K-12 educational spaces, special education practices, and other carceral logics. This should not be surprising given that higher education has historically defined itself by whom it excludes.

At the same time, the predominant diversity model in higher education claims benefits for all kinds of people, yet centers the benefits for white students through the labor of students of color. So, while formal attention to historically minoritized groups on college campuses, predominantly around race and gender, has generally evolved to include larger networks of academic and co-curricular support that extend the compliance measures of their respective antidiscrimination statutes (e.g. the formation of identity centers, recruitment and retention efforts, cultural programming, alumni networks, and scholarships), disability is still treated almost exclusively as a matter of reactive legal compliance. The diversity discourse is troubling in its own right, but also presents a striking contrast to disability, where the question typically is, what do we have to do in order to avoid liability?

While often misunderstood, accommodations on the basis of documented disability are legally intended to provide equal access to college for students whose modes of learning, mobility, or sensory engagement differ from the imagined “normal” student that colleges are designed for. The legal protections in the ADAAA, Section 504, and the Higher Education Opportunity Act grant disabled students access as long as the nature of the accommodation is such that it does not fundamentally alter the program. It’s almost — almost — like accommodations recognize that colleges perform a gatekeeping role against disabled students, a gate for which accommodations are the key. And yet, the complexities of enacting the spirit of disability law and liberation on college campuses means confronting the problem of framing the law as the only arbiter for disability equity, formal classification as the only means of accessing institutional accommodations, and accommodation requests as a nearly unimpeachable pathway around structural barriers.

Accommodating Whiteness

To make sense of our student’s request in light of this complex legal and cultural terrain of higher education, we turn to scholarship in DisCrit — Disability/Critical Race Theory — that examines how dis/ability and race are entangled in educational injustice. Developed as an analytic framework and set of tenets by David Connor, Beth Ferri, and Subini Annamma, DisCrit argues that racism and ableism “collude” in maintaining systems of white supremacy and normalcy. Whereas race and disability are usually treated as discrete concepts having to do with identity, a more critical approach regards them as intersecting and socially constructed categories that “actively re/make oppression and inequality.” DisCrit argues that dismantling ableism requires taking seriously the labels that students are assigned and the reality of different ways people engage with learning, while recognizing how these important forms of recognition can also reinforce white supremacy. To that end, ableism isn’t an isolated system, as activist-scholar TL Lewis makes clear: ableism is “[a] system that places value on peoples’ bodies and minds based on socially constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel, and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”

The recent college admissions scandal revealed through “Operation Varsity Blues” is a good illustration of how racism and ableism collude in gatekeeping. The scandal uncovered the mechanisms through which some white, wealthy parents falsified learning disability diagnoses (among other tactics) to gain access to extended time and priority testing environments for their child’s SAT/ACT completion and entry into elite colleges. In this way, disability accommodations became a form of what Cheryl Harris called “whiteness as property,” or the use of the law to neutralize and legitimize actions that secure white domination.

In looking at these cases through a DisCrit lens we are able to challenge analyses that focus on “loopholes” in disability accommodations as the primary problematic institutional factor at play. Recently expressed suspicions that disability accommodations are simply mechanisms for students to secure learning advantages in higher education are not only unfounded, but also ignore and obscure the ethno-racial, ableist, and sanist assumptions of learning, behavior, and engagement woven into the structures of postsecondary institutions. It assumes that college classrooms are neutral environments for learning and that campus arrangements are racially, physically, emotionally, and psycho-socially equitable. We also reject the notion that these examples merely represent isolated instances of bad acting on the part of parents or students. This perspective dismisses and otherwise overlooks racial and economic structures of inequality that maintain higher education as a white and able-supremacist space. Looking at systemic racism and ableism as mutually reinforcing allows us to interrogate the structures that traditionally determine “what counts” as an educational disability, as well as the problematic legal and campus configurations that are designed to promote access and participation but simultaneously collude to maintain racial power disparities.

Dismantling higher education gatekeeping requires defending disabled students’ access by taking seriously how the dynamics of power and privilege shape the lives of disabled and nondisabled people and acknowledging that the legal standardization of disability access limits the potential of all people. At the same time, it requires interrogating the racialized deployment of ability and disability — whether in the instance of the student maneuvering out of teaching in an urban school or the parents in the Operation Varsity Blues case — in the service of upholding white privilege. Indeed, treating these as separate kinds of gatekeeping only undermines projects of higher educational equity.

Ashley Taylor is assistant professor of educational studies at Colgate University. She specializes in philosophy of education and disability studies, and is interested in the role that intersecting dis/ability, race, and gender positionality play in constructing the civic belonging and knowledge contributions of individuals labelled with intellectual disabilities. Dr. Taylor’s recent work appears in Harvard Educational Review, Educational Theory, and Theory and Research in Education.

Michael D. Smith is currently an associate professor in the Department of Special Education, Language, and Literacy at The College of New Jersey. He earned his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (emphasis in Special Education) from the University of South Florida. During doctoral study, he developed a keen interest in the pedagogical processes and course products associated with culturally responsive teacher education. Since then, his scholarship and teaching has focused on the intersections of social identity, teaching, and learning — with particular attention on empowering teachers to act as social change agents within their spheres of influence. Professor Smith has also provided professional development workshops at universities and school districts related to inclusion and diversity.

Lauren Shallish is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, Language, and Literacy at The College of New Jersey. Her scholarship focuses on the intersections of race/Whiteness and dis/ability in secondary and higher education settings. Dr. Shallish previously worked as a qualitative research assistant for the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, in the Office of Special Education for DC Public Schools, and as chief of staff at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is currently a co-PI for the state funded grant award titled The Troublemaker Project: Teaching and Learning DisCrit in an Urban High School and her forthcoming book will be published in the Disability Studies in Education series for Peter Lang Publishing.