Before starting college, I used to think of ableist barriers in visible and measurable terms. At Georgetown University, I saw inaccessible elevators, malfunctioning automatic doors and the lack of transportation services for students to get from class to class. I also held the belief that ableism did not actually impact my student life or influence the visions I had for myself in the future.
However, ableism, as defined by disability advocate lawyer Talila Lewis, “is a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence.”
As my first semester in college comes to a close, I noticed that being away from home and on my own has distorted my sense of self. Along with an unstable understanding of what I value and what motivates me, I’ve begun to feel anxious and as if I’m always running out of time.
When my mom came to visit last Friday, she asked what had “happened” to make me process myself and my environment with such hostility. But I couldn’t pin down a causal moment or localize this pervasive mood to a discrete set of events. All I knew for sure is that I’d been more vulnerable ever since I left home.
She advised I come back to our home in Virginia for the weekend just to decompress. But as much as I knew she was right, I hated the idea. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving campus for the sole reason of taking a break. As a nonproductive choice, going back home was counterproductive and regressive. I did not want to admit I was mentally incapable, unable to cope with my coursework. I told myself I needed to stay on campus, where I was supposed to be getting smarter, getting better at “putting myself out there” and becoming less uptight.
I had wanted to differentiate who I had been before and after starting college. I was convinced that my past self was a less sociable, less intelligent and less perceptive than my present self. To make sense of my current experiences, I had devalued the person I was just a few months ago living at home. The “pre-2019 Esther” was a less developed human than the Esther today — a subhuman. I had reduced my definition of humanness into a basic algorithm in which my performance level and usefulness became the deciding factors for my worth.
The danger with framing a student in utilitarian terms is that the person becomes just another form of currency institutions can use to make quick transactional decisions. In higher education, these destructive effects of evaluating people as human capital is by no means limited to student experiences. For instance, it is more profitable for universities to hire contingent rather than tenure-line faculty members, a choice that permits the institution more freedom to judge when and on whom to spend resources. If a student’s or instructor’s contributions have no net benefit to improving a university’s status, it is not the institution’s concern to spend energy considering and maintaining that person’s welfare.
As much as I think about deconstructing ableism, I am typically unaware of how easily I make value judgments of myself based on equating my worth to my academic productivity. Specifically on campus, this accepted framework is the most insidious form of ableism because it is both invisible and offers a straightforward method to make decisions about ourselves and who we might become.
The alternative to evaluating people based on productivity, however, is to not evaluate their humanity at all. Nothing can explain someone’s worth into existence or explain it away, including and especially their abilities.
Esther Kang is a freshman in the College. Reconstructing Disability appears online every other Tuesday.