“You, at least to some degree, are afraid of me.”
That is how Justin Martin ’19 began his Nov. 11 talk in Peirce Lounge as part of the Discrimination Advisors’ Storytime series, bimonthly gatherings for the Kenyon community to share their personal narratives. Martin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair, emphasized that there is nothing inherently wrong with the fear that able-bodied people have of him, but that it is painful when they use that fear as an excuse to distance themselves from him instead of engaging with him and learning more. He spoke about his experience as a disabled person grappling with the fact that others’ ideas of him are often privileged over his own conception of himself.
“Being a minority in this country,” he said, “means from a very, very, very young age, you have to have a strong sense of who you are and what you can do.”
When Martin was in second grade, his school initially told him that if he received a computer — since he could not hold a pencil in order to write — the tool would give him an “unfair advantage” over the other students. When preparing for college, Martin indicated his desire to be an English major. But Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) — a state agency that funded Martin’s lift system for his bathroom at Kenyon — wanted him to pick a major like business or economics. Martin said this was because they did not think someone “in my situation” could be an English teacher, even though he has experience teaching English. As a junior, he taught three periods of AP Language and Composition every day for two weeks at Hilliard Darby High School in Hilliard, Ohio.
Today, Martin is an English major, has read his poetry at the Columbus Museum of Art and is a founding member of Kenyon’s comedy improvisation group The Ballpit Whalers.
Martin’s sense of humor was evident in his talk: In one instance he compared the dreams able-bodied people have with the dreams of everyday interactions (like getting coffee) he had for many years as a disabled person.
“I don’t know what able-bodied people dream about,” he said with a laugh. “I bet it’s awesome.”
Martin also shared his thoughts on the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency on Nov. 9. He said that many Americans are left feeling isolated and afraid. But he doesn’t like how people use fear to turn away from people who need them, which — “spoiler alert,” he said — is everyone. He said we need to be vigilant and empathetic with people who are hurting more than ever before. He stressed that those present should resist Trump and his hateful rhetoric, but also need to strive to not be divisive. “Resist the voice in you that tells you to lash out at people,” he said. He posed a question to the crowd: How do we bring people who aren’t directly affected by a Trump presidency into the fold?
Trump’s presidency could affect Martin’s ability to attend Kenyon, and he is unsure whether or not he will be able to return next year. Trump has indicated he supports Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s budget, which urges states to switch from formula grants to block grants. In the past, Medicaid block grants have offered much less funding to disabled people for necessities like track-lift systems (which lift and move a person from point to point along a ceiling track), medication, providers, wheelchair repairs and more.
“I’m going to yell at some people in government if I have to, which I have experience with,” he said. “But you all need to, too. I want to stay here.” Martin testified to the Ohio House of Representatives the summer before his first year to stop a proposed bill that would have replaced independent care providers (aides Martin himself can hire and dismiss) with agency providers (who are strangers Martin would not choose). The bill did not ultimately pass.
Martin believes this campus has a lot of work to do in terms of its treatment of minorities generally; he has spoken to other disabled people who attended Kenyon before him who felt the same way about the treatment of disabled students. Martin could have gone to a more accessible campus, he said, but he came to Kenyon for “this inarticulable magic here that draws people to it.” And Martin wants this magic to be more reachable for others.
“If you truly love this campus, if you truly felt the joys of the best days at Kenyon,” he said, “why would you want to keep a single person from that experience?”