Over the weekend, one of my friends sent me a video recorded by an active bystander for academic ableism who was showing a situation where a student with hearing loss was being berated by the professor for their disability. I don’t want to share the video here since the version of the video I saw contains personally identifying information about the student, but their experience was all too familiar for me as a student with low vision who remembers getting yelled at in front of the entire class for having a disability. I have taught many wonderful friends and classmates how they can be active bystanders for academic ableism situations that I would encounter in the classroom, and today I will be sharing my tips for how other students can do the same. Please note that I will be sharing a separate post on how disabled students can empower themselves in situations of academic ableism.
What is academic ableism?
Academic ableism is a term that was coined to describe the discrimination of disabled people in the academic space. Some examples of academic ableism include:
- Not following an IEP, 504 Plan, or other disability accommodations
- Providing inaccessible classroom materials
- Using disability as a punchline or mocking people with disabilities
- Talking about a person instead of directly to them, or speaking on their behalf
- Questioning if a person is actually disabled
What isn’t academic ableism?
While this post specifically focuses on academic ableism, it’s helpful to know what behavior is and isn’t ableism. Some examples of things that are not considered academic ableism include:
- Referring to people with identity-first language, i.e “blind student”
- Using words such as see, look, or hear in context, such as “did you hear about that?” or “did you see the new movie?”
- Asking questions about disability or assistive technology in a respectful/meaningful way
Take note of microaggressions or smaller incidents
In my case, there were always microaggressions or smaller incidents that lead up to the “big incident” where I would get yelled at in front of the class. One of the ways my friends would help support me is by taking notes about these types of things in their phones or notebooks where they would write down the date and what was said verbatim. I would record these notes on my own as well, but it was helpful to have a backup copy in case something happened to mine. I wanted my friends to only write what was said verbatim by the teacher because I didn’t want their credibility to come into question later.
Some examples of notes that my friends would write include:
- 10/16/2012- “Veronica, I don’t know why you keep asking for large print when you’ll be getting a driver’s license soon. Obviously you can see better than you tell us.” (Note that I never have had a learner’s permit or license, though at the time lots of my friends were getting their licenses)
- 5/5/2011- “There’s no such thing as large print in the real world, so try harder to read.”
- 1/9/2014- “I feel bad that you don’t have an accessible copy of the textbook, but since you didn’t do the assigned reading I have to give you a zero.”
- Ten Spooky Inaccessible Assignments and How To Fix Them
- Six Word Horror Stories for Students with Low Vision
Ask the student about the best way to help them
If a student begins to notice that another student is dealing with academic ableism, it’s best to reach out to that student directly and ask what the best way to help is. I recommend doing this in-person or by using a communication method that the teacher/professor is unable to access or read messages from. Here’s what I would recommend saying:
- “Hey, I heard the teacher say that they can’t be bothered writing on the board so you can see it. I know you have trouble seeing the board, is there anything I can do or say if the teacher makes a comment like that again?”
- “I noticed that you didn’t get large print in class today and the teacher was really mean to you, do you want me to tell the guidance counselor what happened, or is there something else I can do to help?”
- “I was in class today and heard the professor making really negative comments about blind people today. Do you want me to say something to the teacher if it happens again?”
What to do during a major incident
It can be very scary to witness a major incident or outburst against a classmate, and I’ve found that a majority of the time, my fellow students would freeze and not know what to do. As someone who has been the target, my top tips for what other students should do in major incidents involving academic ableism include:
- Record what is happening- this does not have to involve a camera
- If it is safe, get another staff member in the classroom immediately, or send a message to a school official saying what is happening
- Stand up for the student and call out the teacher’s behavior as wrong if it is safe to do so- however, make sure that someone else is documenting what is happening
- Leave the classroom with the affected student
- If the student leaves the room and the person is still yelling, record what they are saying about the student and contact a guidance counselor or other mediator
- Report what happened as soon as possible
Find a way to record what is happening
While classes should not be recorded with the expectation that a major incident involving academic ableism will occur, it is invaluable to have recordings of outbursts or public displays of academic ableism. While students may not be comfortable or able to record the incident with a camera, there are a few other options for recording what is going on:
- Take written notes about what is being said by each person
- Record an audio file
- If there are written comments, take a screenshot or copy/paste them
- Record the screen (if it is an online class)
If possible, give recordings directly to the student
While it wasn’t directly related to academic ableism, there was an incident that took place when I was in high school involving harassment, and it was difficult for the situation to be addressed since I didn’t have a ton of proof for what was going on. This changed when I learned that another classmate had recorded what was happening and submitted the recording to the principal because they were concerned for my safety, and they gave me a copy of the recording as well in case I needed it. Having this recording allowed me to be able to address the situation further, and I am beyond grateful that my classmate was able to help me without giving the recording to people who didn’t need to see it.
- What If I Have To Report Disability Accommodation Violations?
- Why You Should Get A Disability Services File
Write a brief statement about what was witnessed
After a major incident dies down, it can seem overwhelming to process what has just happened. Even if a student didn’t catch anything on a recording, it’s extremely helpful to write down what was witnessed in the form of a brief statement. This can look similar to the notes on microaggressions or take the form of a longer statement that can later be shared with an academic office or principal.
Do not post student information without consent
While it may be tempting to tell people all about what went down during history class on social media, this can be deeply distressing for the student involved as it may be difficult for them to talk about this incident or see it mentioned in other places. There’s also the safety/privacy concern of exposing where someone goes to school, what their name is, etc. Before posting anything on social media or another public information source, check with the student to make sure that they are okay with this incident being shared.
Tell an adult after school
For younger students, it can be difficult to know where to go for help or how to report academic ableism that is witnessed in the classroom. After a major incident took place where I was yelled at in front of the class, I learned that several students who witnessed what happened came home and told their parents what had happened, and they were able to get in contact with my parents to report what had happened in case I was too scared to talk about it. This was incredibly helpful, as I was actually very scared to talk about what had happened, and my parents were able to use the information from other students when calling the school to discuss what happened. If these parents didn’t have our contact information, calling the school to report the incident would have been helpful as well.
Report what happened to the appropriate office
When one of my best friends was a witness to a situation involving academic ableism in college, they were unsure how to report the incident or if it should be reported, as they assumed that no one would investigate what happened. I told them that was not their call to make, and that reporting the situation would at least give people the opportunity to investigate what they had witnessed, instead of letting the incident go unnoticed. Every college/university is different, but examples of offices where academic ableism from professors can be anonymously reported include:
- Academic Dean
- Office of Disability Services
- Accessibility/Assistive Technology Office
- Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics
- Student Support Center
It’s worth noting that we did not report this incident to all of these offices, rather these are just different examples of places where this behavior can be reported.
- Blindness Canes and Accessibility Issues: Navigating College Campuses
- What To Know About College Assistive Technology Specialists
Accompany the student when they are questioned
In the aftermath of a major incident, students are frequently questioned about what happened, and it can be a very overwhelming experience as students have to remember what might be one of the worst days of the school year. When I had to talk about a major incident, another one of my best friends stayed with me until the meeting started so that I wouldn’t be anxious or spend more time thinking about the incident than I had to. I’ve also accompanied friends to meetings so that they could discuss academic ableism in college meetings, and even though I didn’t speak a lot, my presence was helpful for my friends who were in those situations.
Summary of how to be an active bystander for academic ableism
- Academic ableism is defined as the discrimination against disabled people in the academic space
- Write down when you notice microaggressions or smaller incidents, as these often happen before larger outbursts
- Ask the student privately if there is anything that you can do to help
- During a major incident, document what is happening and try to get the attention of another staff member to intervene
- Record major incidents using audio or video tools, or just write out what is happening
- Give recordings or notes directly to the student, do not post them on social media without consent
- Younger students can tell an adult after school and make sure that someone else knows what happened
- For college students, an anonymous complaint can be filed within one of the external offices
- Accompany the student when they are questioned by either sitting with them before or during the meeting