Exhausted by Oppression, Disabled Student Asks “When is it My Turn to Learn?”

If you saw my last post, you saw what was just one turning point in an all-consuming effort to be safely evacuated in an emergency at Purchase College. Since I posted that video three weeks ago, there have been countless more alarms, more meetings, and more Emails, each seeming to escalate a little more than the last. The long and short of it is that the plan of me calling someone just for them to call someone else does take too long, but the offices who hold the power to change that do not see the urgency, and legality, of the matter at hand. But this post isn’t about the logistical specifics; it’s about everything else. Because in the flurry to find a solution, the basic fact that I am at school in the first place to get an education gets lost. Even the most well meaning people- even other students- don’t hesitate to put more on my plate, not even realizing they’re doing it. “You could do this!”, “you should speak to this person!” The result of my trying to rise to this expectation, which is often one in the same as the expectation I hold for myself, is a level of social/emotional burnout (hehe- “burn” out…) that I’ve never experienced before.

If you’re an abled person whose response is to nitpick the details in search of a solution in an effort to be helpful, stop. Not only is it not your job to save the day, but it invalidates the work I’m doing. If you swoop in with specific thoughts of “why isn’t this being done”, you are presuming that in all my efforts, I just haven’t thought of it, and want to engage with you about it. Just like with a physical task, unless your help is solicited, keep your strategizing to yourself. Since your sudden need to “figure this out” is a product of your anger, you asking me to engage in your thought process, is asking the marginalized person in question to hold your anger. Furthermore, reverting to logistics is to deflect my own well-being, or lack thereof. To hear the stress someone is going through on such a large scale and your first question not be “how are you doing”, is to neglect that at the center of all of this is a single human being who probably just needs someone to ask how they are doing. Which really is the source of oppression in the first place: failing to see and treat individuals as human beings.

So how am I doing? Not great. There is a unique sorrow in being shown the people entrusted to educate you don’t care to do just that. And there is an exhaustion in that sentence having been relevant in my life three years before, and two, etc. When I first experienced discrimination in an institution of higher learning around this time of year three years prior, my thought process was “I just have to get through this, and then I can refocus on what I’m here to do.” So I went through the process, sitting through meeting after meeting where I was expected to walk professors and administrators through educating me. And then there was another instance, and then a new study abroad option was not made accessible, and I was told to Email someone to inquire. I left the school. I left knowing I was not reaching my potential, with no one within the school reflecting that maybe they were the problem. This was despite my going through all the motions I was told to reach success: study hard, ask questions, get good marks, get the internships, read the plays, see the shows. At the end of the day, I lacked applied knowledge my peers had, because large chunks of time were spent carving out a space for my disabled self.

And now all this time later, at an entirely different institution, I find myself in the same place: a model student, motivated and ready, unable to fully grasp the opportunity in front of me because all (and I do mean all) of my emotional capacity and time both in and outside of class hours are being called upon to meet basic safety needs. Tell me: How am I supposed to pay attention in class when I got 4 hours of sleep after thinking I was about to die in an emergency the night before? How does one lean on student support services when multiple administrative offices won’t answer the most basic of questions about policy that should already be in place? How do I network with peers or go to extracurricular events when I’m barely able to turn in assignments? When do I study amidst 7+ meetings a week that have nothing to do with academics? Where is my mental health if I am expected to maintain composed in all of these communications, despite being given reason to be scared and angry?

Anger is a privilege. People can only express anger when they know it won’t hinder their success, and when they are removed from whatever it is they are reacting to. Take Brett Kavanaugh, for example. His belligerent performance at the recent hearings were only passable because he knew his privilege would protect him. He had space from the issue, because he wasn’t endangered by his actions or the thought of sexual assault, so he could react however he pleased. It was Dr. Ford who was expected to remain composed, carefully planning each sentence so as to present objectively despite the horrific, intensely personal memory she was recounting. If I show anger within my own advocacy, my credibility is suddenly questioned. “You’re emotional” is used to suggest that feelings get in the way of legitimacy. I know I can present facts and figures just as accurately when I am “feeling things”, but I also know not to show when I am angry, because that is taken as a reason to write off what I am saying. My abled friends are outraged by my experiences of oppression because they can be. I’ve been taught that there is a time and place for anger, but that time and place won’t serve me.

But I am angry- infuriated, actually. I’m angry that everyone around me seems to be soaking up new information and experiences, while I am forcibly stuck navigating versions of the same thing over and over again. I am angry I am not respected enough to respond to in a timely manner until parents get involved. I am tired of always feeling like the friend with the depressing status update; the strong friend; the girl who “has been through a lot”. I am angry I am so vulnerable. And I am angry I am hitting my own glass ceiling, even though I can see the sun shining through from the other side. As I’ve touched on before, I am only as prepared for the “disabled experience” as much as the next 21 year old. Each time something like this occurs, I am surprised and angered even if this is just one of many experiences of oppression, and even if I have learned not to show my anger.

When I turned 19, I got a tattoo on my left leg that reads I am as I am. It serves as a reminder in times like this. I may know that I am as I am, but when do I get to experience an education “as I am?” The jury’s still out. Recently, as I strategized with my academic advisor, who has been my number one support “on the inside,” I started crying when she showed me a museum exhibit nearby. “You should go!” she said excitedly. “When?!” I said, louder than I had intended, hot tears streaming down my face all of a sudden. There are so many art installations and plays and films and concerts that I just can’t get to, because I have to stay here and ride everyone’s ass to make sure I can get out of my dorm and around campus. “Oh.” she said, fully taking in who sat in front of her. “It’s still in you. I can see it.” she said. “And I think this may actually be coming to an end, as hard it is right now.”

So today I am choosing to put faith in that this will come to an end, while leaning into my anger that it is only a matter of time until the oppression weed sprouts anew. I am holding onto the possibility of a world where oppression, my anger, and myself “as I am” can coexist.


Today, this is where she stands.

~ Sonya

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