The majority of conversation about accessibility at Kenyon focuses on its physical shortcomings: “Pave Middle Path,” or “Kenyon is not a walking campus.” These are valid cries; they rightly insinuate that only those who can easily walk fit in at the College.
Regardless of plans to renovate Ascension or discussion centered on paving Middle Path after it rains or snows, little discussion occurs on campus about cultivating a community in which disabled or chronically ill students feel included. This inclusion translates into allowing these demographics to feel independent and individually important.
By failing to demonstrate a desire for underprivileged students to attend Kenyon, the school struggles to give them any reason to feel important amongst their peers. The New York Times reports that “the median family income of a student from Kenyon is $213,500, and 75% come from the top 20 percent” as of January 2017. An American Psychological Association study claims that this culture of privilege cultivates an attitude of self-importance and worthiness amongst wealthier students; for them, an independent sense of belonging on an elite campus (akin to Kenyon’s environment) exists.
Those of a working class background grew up understanding that in order to live comfortably, reliance on others remains necessary. This ostracism of underprivileged students also impacts students with disabilities by suggesting that those who grew up needing help and assistance do not have a place at Kenyon.
Nicole Stephens, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and Sarah Townsend, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Southern California, argue that upper class children more often receive encouragement that they can accomplish any and all of their goals. Unlike the individualism so closely tied to those with a stable income, lower-class children grow up learning that “You can’t always get what you want,” and “It’s not all about you” — the antithesis of the oft-repeated “At Kenyon, you will” tagline. Self-sufficiency is a quintessential virtue of Kenyon students; disabled people rarely play the role of an “ideal” Kenyon student who can accomplish their goals by themselves.
The near total exclusion of students with physical disabilities — those who lack complete self-sufficiency — demonstrates the narrow worldview of “At Kenyon, you will.” This phrase exists with strings attached: strings that represent the sole option of a crowded dining hall, a gravel path constituting the lifeblood of campus and a lack of elevators in many academic and residential buildings.
This exclusion transcends physical limitations and seeps into the classroom and other social settings. Consider that residential halls inaccessible by wheelchair exclude students from feeling welcome in their own home. Accessibility must reach beyond a single room in a building and instead should include the whole structure. This reality renders it all too easy for non-disabled students to simply and solely react by pitying those with disabilities instead of using their privilege to amplify their peers’ voices.
Pity damages the already compromised sense of belonging that hangs over the heads of disabled students. Claire Wineland, an activist for people with cystic fibrosis, asserts that “when you pity sick people, you take away their power.” Instead of combating Kenyon’s mantra of individualism, pity reminds those with unique needs that for many of their classmates, their lives (and subsequent needs) cannot represent joyous ones to live.
Ultimately, those who have experienced a disability cannot be the only people fighting to create an accessible Kenyon. This battle will need to occur beyond Middle Path and Ascension and cannot end if paving happens and elevators get installed; this would represent a futile effort for disabled students. Instead, the majority of Kenyon students (instilled with the notion that they can do anything) must broaden their scope beyond tangible hardships for disabled members of the student body. Together, the Kenyon community must learn that asking for help does not demonstrate weakness and depending on others does not render one inferior. In fact, this increased engagement spurs community that otherwise would not exist on this homogenous Hill.
Sigal Felber ’21 is an undeclared major from Verona, Wis. She is currently on medical leave recovering from a car accident in June.