Featured image description: behind a bicycle, a brick column with a handicap access door button on it, in snow.
Note: This is a translation of a piece written at the end of my first semester at Oberlin. I intend at some point to write a two-semester followup, as well as a practical guide to being disabled at the College.
Content warnings: Ableism, including ableist slurs. Discussion of chronic pain. Transphobia, including misgendering.
Edited to add warnings for transphobia and misgendering, which I forgot to do on the first sweep. I’m very sorry to anyone who that affected before I caught it!
The Allen Memorial Art Museum is one of the jewels of the Oberlin campus. It’s a beautiful building with an extensive collection; it’s peppered with art from ancient Greece and contemporary America, Renaissance Europe and twentieth-century Africa. As an academic museum it’s incredible, on a level with those belonging to Harvard and Yale. And in the spirit of Oberlin, the museum is free and open to the public, whether they’re coming from campus, from the town, or from anywhere else. The façade of the building declares the museum’s intentions: on one side, The fine arts, a heritage from the past, on the other, The fine arts, a gift to the future. I doubt there’s anyone in the entirety of the college who would doubt that the museum is both honorable and necessary.
The front of the Allen Memorial museum, a grey building with columns and a raised entrance. A poster reading “FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC” is visible.
On a Wednesday during my first semester, one of those days that’s just floating between Monday and the end of the week, my Chemistry class goes to the museum. We’ve met up there instead of our usual classroom, and all thirty-something of us stay on the first floor while the museum’s academic coordinator tells us about the collections we’re here to see. The pride she takes in the museum is palpable; she invites us to look at the ceiling, which is made of dozens of square, illustrated canvases. At the moment, she says, it’s being renovated, with experts carefully cleaning off every canvas, restoring them to full color and their original level of detail. This will take until next summer. She never stops smiling.
I’m listening, nodding at the appropriate times, but I can’t get comfortable. I shift my weight from one foot to the other. She reiterates that coming to the museum is free as in speech and free as in beer, that it brings fine art to the entire public equally.
I have my journal and a pencil in my left hand, my cane in my right.
Here’s the dirty little secret of this great contribution to the community: your access to everything the museum has to offer depends on if you can take the stairs.
The ceiling of the museum: two-by-two grids of square canvases. One set of four is noticeably lighter than the others, having been restored already.
One day when I was fourteen, I woke up feeling like I’d been beaten. I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I took ibuprofen, tried to remember what on earth I’d done the day before, and waited for the pain to subside.
It never did.
I found a doctor who prescribed me painkillers, discovered that I have a deformed spine (which isn’t the main culprit, but is pretty funny), and learned to live on tiptoes, dodging anything that would worsen the pain or the fatigue. I stopped going to aikido classes when my sensei declared that my newfound brittleness was intentional and disrespectful.
My high school was a small building housing a hundred and eleven students. All my classmates knew there was something wrong with me; they asked about the classes I missed because my doctors’ appointments were during business hours and my absence from races and soccer games I would’ve otherwise been obligated to attend. Every day I woke up, went to school, came back from school, and slept until I was able to drag myself out of bed and do homework. I deviated from this pattern rarely.
Despite all this, no one would’ve considered me disabled. I had a doctor’s note indicating I had no obligation to take physical education classes, a diagnosis of severe persistent asthma that arrived a decade late, fifteen milligrams of meloxicam a day, and the chatter of family and friends that someday I would stop being like this. But since no one could turn to me and guess that I was sick, I wasn’t, according to many people around me. And disability was something else, something that happened to other people, in other places. On my end of things, the adults who surrounded me promised that the burning pain would abate if I just changed my diet, my religion, my attitude.
The summer before I got to Oberlin, I did some research on the Americans With Disabilities Act. When I tentatively told one of the many people who’s effectively a godparent to me that I had read the US’ legal definition of a disabled person and that it described me, she–a former nurse–instructed me that I should never call myself disabled, because that would just make people take advantage of it to hurt me.
Two months later, I got to college with three weeks worth of my medications and almost accentless English. I had won a room in Baldwin, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Room number 213: close to the back stairs, on the second floor. My dorm had thirty residents, five lounges, a washing machine, a piano; of course it didn’t have an elevator.
After my first week in Oberlin, I gave in. I bought a cane. It came in the mail two days before classes started. After an event for incoming students I spent fifteen minutes teaching myself to walk with it and headed back to Baldwin.
I’d only seen my RA a little bit, but she’d made a good impression. By chance, on my way back, I passed by her on the first floor and we headed up the stairs at the same time, with her in the lead.
When she was almost to the second floor, she turned around and said, “Hey, Alex, so is that just decorative or what?”
A photograph of a sidewalk, in which a leg wearing black shoes and a knee brace can be seen, as well as a gloved hand holding a weathered cane. The photographer’s shadow extends across the pavement.
It’s almost nine in the morning. I’m crossing Tappan Square on my way to my first class of the day, and en route I’m thinking about a conversation I had with my dad, a couple days after he’d dropped me off on campus.
“There’s a lot of buildings on campus that only have stairs available,” I said, “I don’t know what being disabled here would be like. As a matter of fact I’m struggling a lot.”
“Well, it’s not a problem,” he said, “those people will just have to go somewhere else.”
“But there are even classrooms that…”
“No one made it obligatory for those people to be able to go everywhere,” my dad said. I changed the subject.
I’m thinking about that now, on my way to the physics building. I can only get to my classroom if I go through another building the better part of a block away, go to its second floor, and cross the Chemistry and Biology departments to reach the next elevator I need to go up half a floor in. In the classroom there are stairs as well, and this time they’re inevitable; it’s an auditorium.
I’m late to class.
A couple days after I got to Oberlin, someone finally told me that the main dining hall had an elevator. If you come in the third door of the building, it’s behind a pair of double doors reading “Authorized personnel only / Elevator access”. Instead of a button pointing upwards, the elevator has a keyhole in the wall. To get to the second floor, you have to acquire the key, open the elevator, and give the key back to the line-checker at the desk in front of the doors. Because of this, a single student can’t go up the elevator alone.
The first time I ask to use the elevator, the lady at the desk asked why I needed it. The second time, it was someone else, and she asked why as well. The third, the fourth, the fifth. In about three days I’d ended up explaining it six times over to the same three people.
My cane arrived in the mail a few days later.
They stopped asking.
And now I’m on the second floor of the museum with my intro chemistry classmates. We just went up to the “print room”, a climate-controlled space where pieces are shown without frames. The academic coordinator gushes about how different the experience of seeing art without having to look through glass is. She elaborates on the details of each photograph.
I can’t see any of them. My eyes won’t focus. I pull out a chair without permission and sit down to write in case it will help. I write: “My ability to function as a student is being eroded to the point of disappearing by something that was supposed to be fun, because the museum can allow itself the luxury of restoring its ceilings but in a hundred years of operation it’s been too expensive to consider an elevator.”
I saw a man in a wheelchair on the first floor. I don’t know how he got in; I haven’t been able to find a door without stairs leading up to it. When I got here, like always, I just started hauling myself up them.
In my second month at Oberlin, my RA decides to take me to her room to talk to me. The conversation that she wants to have is uncomfortable and significantly futile; after half an hour, in a bid to change the subject at any cost, I end up telling her a bit about being disabled at Oberlin.
The main stairs to the second floor of Baldwin. They’re made of dark wood, with a twist and a landing, and two windows behind them filed with white light.
“In my first-year seminar there’s an able-bodied guy who thinks it’s rude to say ‘disabled person’ and wants us all to say ‘differently abled person’ and I tell him, ‘As a physically and mentally disabled person that’s intensely uncomfortable for me, “differently abled” doesn’t describe me any better or respect me at all, in my experience it’s just a shield abled people use to feel better about themselves because that way they don’t have to examine the benefits being abled gives them if we all have “different abilities”. It’s a euphemism that doesn’t help at all. It just makes me invisible.” And the guy literally says, “I can’t disagree more”–literally tells me he “can’t disagree more” with me as a disabled person having opinions that differ from his! And…
“At the beginning of the semester I started using a cane,” I say, with significant difficulty, “and you were the first person to ask me about it ever, and your exact words were ‘Is that just decorative or what?’ That was utterly inappropriate and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. Questions like that are a demand for personal information about my body. The way you chose to phrase it put me in a position where I had to choose between giving you my medical history to justify my disability or let you think I’m faking it. And I don’t know what kind of person you think I am if you think I would use mobility aids as a decoration.”
The RA nods and says, “Well, in all my four years here I’ve never seen a differently abled person, so you’re going to have to forgive me, because I just spoke without thinking…”
“–so ever since I started using a cane I keep running into people who think they have a right to know what I use it for, and if I don’t want to tell them they decide that it’s rude, or evidence that I’m not really disabled, or both.” I’m speaking in my first-year seminar, and someone just said that it’s the responsibility of marginalized people to justify their existence and explain their experiences to the privileged if they want to be treated with respect, since obviously, according to my classmate, they could never deserve it by default.
“That’s awful,” a girl in my class says, “that’s just horrible. But if you don’t mind me asking, why do you have that cane?”
At the Student Health clinic, my first week in Oberlin, I commented offhand to a nurse that I figured I’d have to start using a cane to be able to get around campus. She responded with shock and horror; “Don’t say that! We’ll just have to hope that won’t happen.”
I ordered my cane the next day.
I want to emphasize that my cane might well be the best thing that happened to me all years; suddenly I could walk miles instead of blocks, I could get out of bed every morning, I felt like I was alive again. For the first time in four years, living in my body had gotten easier instead of progressively harder. My cane didn’t “disable” me, it didn’t make me someone else, it never hurt me at all. What “disables” me has only ever been Oberlin’s campus and the inhabitants thereof.
As the weeks go by I learn how to eat in Stevenson. I go in the third door, because that’s where the elevator is; I walk up to the lady who takes our student IDs; I wait, fidgeting miserably, while she calls out, “Could anyone open the door for her?”
A white hallway, with red and green event boards on the wall. At the end of the hallway, a blurry human figure sits behind a wood podium.
A stranger takes the proffered key, walks with me to the elevator, opens it. Sometimes I make an icebreaker comment. Sometimes I don’t. They’re always different people, and I always have to tell them what to do. I thank this random stranger, who I will probably never see again. I hit the button for the second floor.
This process takes time and it’s an exercise in shame to have to put myself at the mercy of others like this, but it’s not that bad, not usually. I stand for a painful amount of time, have a short, awkward conversation, and get loudly misgendered. When I have someone I know walking with me it’s better; they can walk up and ask for the key before the lady says anything, and then go up along with me.
“It’s not that bad,” says the friend who helped me out today. “All things considered, this is pretty easy.”
“Yeah,” I echo. “Not that bad.”
One day, it is.
I get to Stevenson with a cadre of friends, on a night at the end of November. It’s cold and it’s windy, and there’s only one open door, the one that’s across the building lengthwise from the elevator. I’m walking at the front of my group, and since I can’t hold the door open myself, I hit the automatic door button.
As we walk in, the line-checker demands, “Who pushed the button?”
I’ve had problems with some of them before; it’s awkward having to own up to it, because that means getting into the fact that I couldn’t hold it open on my own. I don’t want to say “I can’t”, and if it hasn’t been noticed I don’t want to stand out, but in those three days before my cane I learned that if I just told them everything they wanted to know they’d leave me alone. One spent several days in a row lecturing me that the doors took a long time to close and soon the weather would get cold; she dropped it, eventually, three weeks into the semester.
With that in mind, I say, “I did.”
She says, “You shouldn’t do that, it’s cold and the wind comes in.”
I’m already standing next to her; I lean harder on my cane and say, curtly, “I can’t open the door.”
“You have all these friends who could’ve done it for you. It wasn’t necessary.”
I don’t know what to say. My best friend steps forward. “I’m sorry you feel uncomfortable, but you’re making him uncomfortable.”
My friend gestures at me. “Him.”
The lady looks at them for a second. “I think he–she. She didn’t have to do it. She could have asked any of you for help. She didn’t have to do it.”
Afterwards, my friend will say this is proof that the lady heard them, understood, and decided to hurt me on purpose. My girlfriend will say that’s the moment where she crossed a line. The woman has a job: she swipes in our ID cards so we can get into the dining hall. At that point, there’s five of us clustered around her, and she’s not taken anyone’s card.
She says, again, “She didn’t have to do that.”
My girlfriend walks closer to her and introduces herself, smiling widely, asking the woman her name; I’m still frozen. I don’t understand what’s going on. I have a thought, worthless, pointless, painted across my mind: She’s not supposed to be doing this…
To their credit, my best friend manages to coax her into giving them the key, and the two of us go to the elevator. I’m shaking, even though I feel like–I know–what just happened shouldn’t matter.
When we get to the second floor, my girlfriend is talking determinedly with a man in a white chef’s coat, giving him the line-checker’s name and a description.
I don’t say anything. I try to eat dinner.
Later, he’ll pull me aside on the way out, tell me he’s sure the line-checker meant no harm, and repeatedly call my girlfriend a man.
Back in my first-year seminar, near the beginning of the semester, I’d asked the professor why there were buildings on campus without elevators. He looked at the wall, and said that installing elevators is very expensive, and takes a long time, and the college administration has to take things in order of priority, that it can’t do everything at once.
As well as the museum’s renovations, this semester saw the construction of a new addition to the Conservatory. It’s a glass prism on the tallest floor; I don’t know what its purpose is. My first few weeks here, the construction woke me up in the morning. They’re done with it now.
Behind a dark, leafless tree, a view from below of the side of the Oberlin Conservatory, a grey and glass building with an odd resemblance to a radiator. It’s crowned by a rectangular glass prism, the new addition.
I went out for dinner with some friends and a stranger. The stranger ended up walking in front of me twice, and shut a door on me both times. I wouldn’t have cared, but I felt like two times in a row of having a heavy door fall into me was enough to ask who he was. The next morning I was writing in my journal and I asked the lounge at large,
“So, who’s the guy who kept shutting the door on me last night?”
“He was under no obligation to hold it for you,” one person says. She mentioned his name too. I can’t remember it.
“It’s not that he had an obligation,” I say, “but…”
And words fail me. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. Later I figure out that I wanted to express that he had no formal obligation to me as a person, but that our society does owe debts to me in particular as a disabled person, the same way it has obligations towards small children and the elderly.
Although eventually I figure out what I wanted to say, I don’t bother bringing it up again.
The academic coordinator finishes talking and we head down to the first floor. I find a way to hold myself up with my arms and the tips of my toes, walking with the banister and my cane as if they were crutches, and, eventually, I make it downstairs. The professor sees me limping and offers me a chair.
I still can’t hear the lecture, nor can I see. I write: “It’s so embarrassing that they made us stand for ten minutes and then take the stairs and it did this to me. I keep thinking the pain will go away next time I breathe in, but it doesn’t. It just burns.”
The class ends eventually. I head to Stevenson, with a friend, for lunch.
The way I go down stairs is very simple: I throw myself towards the ground and with one hand on the banister and the other on my cane I catch my weight before I actually fall. It’s a day like any other, and I’m headed down the stairs in Stevenson because I got up from our table with five other friends and all of us are singing. I take the stairs fast, sliding on the soles of my feet before my cane hits the floor. We spill out into the hallway, joyfully loud; the line-checker watches us go by.
I took the stairs today, because I could. I think about tomorrow, when I won’t be able to, and I keep singing.
A photograph from above of a wide staircase. Three people are descending, blurred, into a hallway below.