The Ivory Fortress: Reckoning With Academic Ableism

Photo of a walkway at Stanford University. Photo by Jan Andersen; used under a Creative Commons license;

At one point in my life, I wanted to get a PhD in Cultural Studies. This did not work out for a whole bunch of reasons, the biggest of which was that my experience getting my MA in Women’s Studies was generally horrific.

In my undergraduate years at UC Davis, many professors and grad students with whom I studied told me that I excelled at media/cultural studies, and my brain somehow interpreted this to mean that I absolutely should get a PhD.

This interpretation was, I realize now, very wrong.


In his new book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, University of Waterloo Professor of English Jay Timothy Dolmage takes a macro look at how ableism has been a part of neoliberal academia from its beginnings, and how ableist practices at all levels of university education keep students with disabilities on the sidelines. Dolmage asks in the book’s introduction: “”Who benefits in academia, today, from the inclusions and exclusions of disabled students, and who hides these inclusions and exclusions from other liberal values? (29)”

This question is not answerable in one sentence.


Behind the idea—or ideal?—of the university as a special space where intellectual work takes place are more ideas: that of hard work, of pushing oneself intellectually, mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically, because pushing yourself is what it takes to “succeed.”

I worked hard in graduate school and I still don’t feel like I “succeeded,” even though I completed my MA. It felt like there was always some professor or department head gently chiding me to work harder, go to more department events, “participate more” in the intellectual community. Whenever someone mentioned this “intellectual community,” I wanted to laugh.

What community?


Dolmage’s macro examination of ableism in the academy is, for the most part, useful; in part, he argues that the way that colleges and universities are physically designed have thick roots in ableism. In his discussion of campuses retrofitting buildings, walkways and other spaces to accommodate disabled students, Dolmage brings up an interesting point regarding so-called “trigger warnings”: specifically, that trigger or content warnings themselves are a kind of intellectual retrofit. Trigger warnings, and the recent debates over whether today’s college students are “too sensitive,” among other characteristics (right, Andrew Sullivan?), have thrown into stark relief yet more ableism against students with mental health conditions. This aspect of the trigger warning “debate” has not been discussed often, at least in the mainstream media.


Dolmage does address invisible disabilities at some points in Academic Ableism, mostly around the physical and accommodation-related barriers that exist for students with those conditions. In a chapter on Universal Design (UD), he writes, “[…] so-called invisible disabilities are particularly fraught in an educational setting in which students with disabilities are already routinely and systematically constructed as faking it, jumping a queue, or asking for an advantage (117).”

At the same time, as a reader, I wanted Dolmage to delve deeper into the intricacies of invisible disabilities on campus, and how students with those sorts of disabilities, illnesses, and chronic health issues are discriminated against in higher education—often in ways that are more on the micro level of personal interactions, negotiating for disability accommodations, and everyday manifestations of the overarching belief that disabled students do not belong.


Since I left the academic world, I sometimes wonder if things have changed for students with disabilities in academia. It’s only been a few years since I departed the world of higher education for freelance writing, so I am not optimistic that things have changed.

PhD student Kim Sauder, who writes under the alias Crippled Scholar, started a hashtag earlier this year: #everydayacademicableism. The hashtag is worth following, as it is both instructive and troubling. Unsurprisingly, there are many, many ways that ableism is entrenched in university life and in the academic world.


Those who are interested in issues of big-picture academic ableism, universal design (UD), the debates over trigger warnings, and too-sensitive “imaginary college students” (to use Dolmage’s phrase) will find Academic Ableism to be a solid read. People in academia who have not given much thought to students or professors with disabilities should also read this book.

Academic Ableism is available to read for free at the University of Michigan Press’s website.