By Mireli Hernandez
My mother is legally blind; she does not know how to read braille. When I lived with her, I became used to performing a certain set of tasks. I became her eyes in situations where she indicated that she needed me. She relied on consistency: everything had to be in the place where she put it so she could find it without use of her eyes. Our refrigerator became a space of pathways she knew by memory. When I was younger I disagreed with the way she organized it, but I realized the harm I was causing her in rearranging it. Restructuring her memorized pathways made her unable to get what she needed. I was a harmful part of our assemblage. She always strove to prove she could be ‘normal’ while at the same time advocating for other people with visual disabilities. Our home became an assemblage, a tool for her that could be used to make her able, or in other words, that could make her seem normal.
When she brought me to Kalamazoo College with some of my other family members I began to wonder about how the school made space for people with disabilities. As in many places, the room numbers and other labels had raised numbers/letters and braille. Although my mom rarely uses her hands to read (she prefers leaning in close) I was glad to see these alternative options were provided. As my time at school went on I began to think of the different physical pathways available to students. I am a person who is physically capable of going anywhere on campus without aid, and as such I am unable to recognize all of the spaces and things that may be inaccessible or frustrating to disabled people. I have my own bias, wherein I assume the majority of the people on this campus are not disabled, and that the paths available are sufficient for everyone. Living within this reality and with my bias, I believe that some pathways on campus that are meant to be accessible are confusing and roundabout, thus excluding disabled people.
The piece of our campus’s assemblage that I have chosen to discuss are the pathways students take to their classrooms. These paths include the steps within buildings, elevators, bathrooms, doorways, among other pathways on campus.
The pathways students choose to get to class changes according to ability. I’ve seen students from our class going up the stairs by Trowbridge. Thoughts of pathways available for disabled people may only occur to us when we see someone who is visibly disabled. But not all disabilities are visible; disabled people are still isolated from the social circles of humans, whether by other people or by themselves. ‘Disability’ often denotes the meaning ‘less than’. People who are disabled are seen as worth less than and capable of less than able people. This means they are easier to exclude from the human circle.
Pathways help foster this exclusion. Disabled people are excluded from spaces that able people are in all the time. Pathways physically deny disabled people the access they need. For example, although we have an elevator in a seemingly accessible spot in Dewing, the doors to enter Dewing require that they be pulled open. Similarly, the bathrooms in Dewing require a push or pull. By way of the buildings construction and continued existence in this way, disabled people are continuously excluded from the world meant for human use.
This lack of accessibility is inherently a violence. Ayca Cubukcu says “the modern world inherited the moral imperative to reduce human suffering anywhere in the world, with violence and cruelty when necessary” (2017). Cubukcu goes on to discuss the relationship of violence and benevolence, and the ways in which violence is often enacted as a way to be benevolent. This violent exclusion of disabled people can in no way be seen as a benevolent act, unless their isolation can be seen as benevolent. The only people it helps are those able bodied people who many want to forget the existence of the disabled. Thus pathways foster the violent exclusion of disabled bodies, and become part of an assemblage on campus that continues to revolve around and include only able bodied humans and non-humans.
This brings me to the question: were disabled bodies ever granted the right to be human? In a discussion on the humanism of the queer, Chen and Luciano say that C. B. MacPherson’s ‘Man’,
is rational, bounded, integral, sovereign, and self-aware. This is the figure to whom rights and citizenship are granted; this is the default figure that grounds and personifies norms of behavior, ability, and health; this is the figure around which we ordinarily construct notions of political and social agency (2015).
These norms of behavior are modeled around the Man’s ability and health. As such pathways are constructed for people that resemble Man. Man doesn’t need pathways that are accessible, and as such they are maintained in ways that exclude the disabled, pushing them to the margin and making them non-human. This would not be done effectively without the interactions of disabled people and pathways in our assemblage on the campus of Kalamazoo College. This exclusions happens not only because these inaccessible pathways make disabled students less likely to traverse campus, but also because they discourage disabled students from applying to this institution in the first place.
I do not believe disabled bodies were ever granted the right to be human. They do not resemble Man, and they are seen as less than human. The aids given to disabled people often liken them to cyborgs, something considered non-human. Out pathways need to be restructured, so that they normalize the presence and needs of disabled people. Our assemblage is failing to include everything and everyone within it.