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Ableism in MY Curriculum?!

From kindergarten to grad school, learning has always been rewarding and exciting, despite the underlying challenges of depression and anxiety. With coping mechanisms, both good and not-so-good, I’ve navigated academia successfully.

In my higher education courses, the emphasis on accessibility, inclusivity, and critically breaking down traditions has revealed that curriculum may systematically and inherently conflict with our social justice values. The design of courses and assignments seem to follow strict, unwavering expectations of students’ work, assuming that all students are on a level playing field mentally, physically, and emotionally. But we aren’t. It’s time that we consider how curriculum design may be inherently ableist, leaving those afflicted with mental illness at an invisible, nuanced disadvantage.

Ahhh, the often-forgotten ism. Embedded into our society’s individualistic work ethic, ableism rarely makes its way into conversations about social justice, most often represented by a few meek sentences in a textbook, for the sake of covering bases. When we do talk about, read about, or write about ableism, it’s usually a broad overview of physical ability, with little to be said about mental health. Some may argue that it’s often left out of the conversation due to the stigma of laziness and ineptitude. In fact, you might be thinking, what does ableism have to do with mental health? That’s okay. Let’s talk about it.

Ableism affects those afflicted by physical and mental symptoms. Yet, mental health is often left out of a conversation that is seldom had in the first place. As members of the higher education community, it’s necessary for us to foster inclusive environments and to challenge problematic ideas, and that includes how we talk about ableism and mental health in all capacities, especially in the classroom. Institutions of higher education’s central mission is to educate both in and outside the classroom, yet there are barriers to doing so inclusively and holistically.

In recent years, society as a whole seems more willing to acknowledge mental health as a legitimate concern, yet it remains undeniably taboo. As mental health awareness grows, do individual’s practices truly change? We can all benefit from giving ourselves and others grace. When it comes to mental health, we don’t always know how to. The current conversation surrounding mental health in the United States is undeniably tempestuous, especially as access to affordable healthcare is challenged. The stigma surrounding mental health can be witnessed in any and all institutions, negatively impacting our students and ourselves in a variety of ways.

Lazy, Entitled Millennials? Yeah, Nope!

The common narrative remains that college courses have gotten easier, life has gotten better, and younger generations are just lazy. Such broad statements don’t account for factors that contribute to the collegiate environment. Tuition is more expensive than ever, yet many students are pressured to go to college with no prior knowledge of finances or budgeting. The current political climate is robbing many students of their healthcare, as previously accessible services grow in cost. While there isn’t a finite answer to whether or not academia is more difficult, there are certainly significant social changes that contribute to the resilience and coping mechanisms of students at any and every age.

It’s time for us to critically think about how our traditional practices in the classroom are disadvantaging those afflicted with mental illness. In recent years, increasing numbers of individuals in the academic community are visiting wellness and counseling centers in campuses across the country. Is this attributed to awareness and acceptance of mental health disorders, or is it due to the increasing stress of academia? I’d say it’s a little bit of both.

Rarely, mental health makes its way into discussions of higher education. As educators, we often ask ourselves, how can we be inclusive in our practices? By offering accommodations, resources, and referring students to ability services or the counseling center, we can surely do the bare minimum. However, how often do we consider how ableism is embedded into academia? As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, it’s easy for me to blame myself for behaviors that inhibit my ability to grow as a student, educator, colleague, and friend. Yet, how often do I consider how I’ve internalized other’s opinions of mental health that I’ve been subjected to and socialized with since my childhood? I can tell you that I hardly ever do. Sometimes, it seems easier to ignore social factors and suffer in silence.

It’s time to take a step back and seriously consider how we are factoring mental health into our practices as higher education professionals. Further, it’s time to challenge what is taboo, emphasize individualized student development, and embrace healthy coping mechanisms. Let’s encourage discussions how we can reconstruct our discussions, centralizing evidence based practice.

Ableism: Insidious and Fluid

What can we, as social justice advocates and educators, do to change cyclical, difficult assignments that have become rites of passage? How can we use our creativity and compassion to co-construct solutions with our students? Most importantly, how can we be flexible and patient with our students who are suffering from mental health disorders? We know that the standards for curriculum and liberal arts has evolved much since its formation. We also know that learning is changing: students learn differently depending upon the times, so why aren’t the methods of teaching changing, too? I believe the inherent disconnect between knowledge of different ways of learning and rigid ways of teaching are contributing to underlying ableism in academia.

For example, consider the last syllabus you read. Most likely, it followed a strict timeline with lengthy, daunting assignments, and hundreds (or thousands) of pages of reading. Now, consider all of the additional tasks you were taking on at that time. Whether it be an assistantship, a job, multiple jobs, volunteer roles, etc., I’m sure your plate was pretty full. For some, the challenge is exciting. For others, it can lead to the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health symptoms that are reported in high numbers every year for students at every collegiate level.

Next, think about the definition of ableism you’re familiar with. It probably looks something like this: a·ble·ism, noun: discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. Thinking about the syllabus you envisioned, what evidence of ableism do you see? Here’s my guess: none. Besides, how could it be ableist when every professor copies and pastes the same generic diversity statement?

How is assigning 150+ pages of reading per week ableist?

How is assigning 3 20-page papers per semester ableist?

How is requiring lengthy sections of group work every week ableist?

And so on…

My argument is not that these assignments and expectations, each with the possibility of valuable and meaningful learning outcomes, are not inherently ableist. Practitioners, faculty members, and other professionals are not being intentionally exclusionary: that’s not the issue. However, mixing a demanding, strong cocktail of assignments over the course of a semester can have detrimental effects on students. During a depressive episode, reading can be impossible. When coping with high levels of anxiety, finishing a 20-page paper can be an incredible feat. For some, engaging in group work is incredibly draining. The list goes on.

Continue the Conversation for Future Generations

I challenge you to critically think about ableism has become so embedded into academia that we forget about mental health, among other invisible disabilities. Go forth and converse with your professors, colleagues, and friends to reduce the stigma. Challenge the idea that mental health symptoms are synonymous with laziness. Open the channels of communication for the future of higher education for students at every level.

As society evolves, so do students and as does the political, social climate we all reside in. Tuition costs may continue to rise, healthcare may become more difficult to access, and mental health may continue to be stigmatized and forgotten. But if we want to preach social justice and inclusivity, it’s time to work together to make the classroom safe and accessible for those affected by mental illness.

While I don’t have a concrete, step-by-step solution to ableism in the classroom, resources are available. Until we, as educators, venture away from outdated curriculum and rethink how we are educating students, there are options to improve one’s experience. Accommodations can be made through ability services centers, and the counseling center continues to be a wonderful resource outside the classroom. I hope that as mental health awareness grows and the stigma around it diminishes, additional resources will get the funding and attention they deserve.

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