Ryerson University issued the following announcement on July 20.
Ableism and colonialism are closely entwined in the history of our country—and our education systems. Are we advancing these forces through our unexamined assumptions? How can we begin to create a better future? On July 9, two scholars shared their research at the School of Disability Studies’ annual Activist Lecture.
Jay Dolmage (associate professor in Waterloo University’s Department of English) and Nicole Ineese-Nash (an Anishinaabe scholar, Ryerson early childhood studies graduate, and current social justice education doctoral candidate at U of T) gave keynote addresses at the event, titled “Legacies of Ableism and Colonialism in Higher Education: Where Do We Go From Here?”
Nicole Ineese-Nash’s grandmother was a residential school survivor, and Ineese-Nash has seen firsthand how this abusive system has had a cyclical legacy. She chose to pursue an education to help put her life in a new direction, but has been careful to maintain an Indigenous cultural worldview while also navigating the Euro-western education model. “Education can be a lifeline, as it was for me, for some people who have endured generational oppression—but it is often us ‘passing’ individuals who are invited into these positions. Schools remain spaces that are hostile to individuals who think, move, speak, or act in ways that divert from the ideal student, and for many these environments trigger real and valid feelings of hostility.”
She noted that education systems are founded on the ideal that everyone should participate in the colonial experiment. “This ideology continues to determine what’s valuable enough to be taught, who is able to teach, and how learning should be expressed. Because the system is so deeply entrenched, we forget to question the cultural values that are imparted on us through public education.
“Colonial culture is a culture. It is not the default—yet it makes itself merely invisible. It asserts itself as the dominant, the normative, the objective, so we stop resisting and conform. But not all people can or want to do that.”
Through her research, Ineese-Nash better understood how colonialism contributes to disability and systemic oppression. “Disability is contextual. What we see as disability in one circumstance may not be seen as disabling in another. Elders say that disability occurs when the expectation of the environment is not aligned with the individual’s capacities or gifts. They refer to this as cultural misunderstanding, and they say this leads to the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in disability services.”
Dolmage, whose research explores disability rights, asked the audience to consider the traditional relationship between university researchers and people with disabilities. “Historically, disabled peoples have been the objects of study, but not the purveyors of the knowledge base of disability,” he said. Moreover, higher education has been built on close relationships between universities and psychiatric institutions (many of them with histories of sexual and emotional abuse), and helped legitimize eugenics, which Dolmage defines as the flawed “science” of “controlling who lives, who procreates, who thrives, and who dies, based on flawed ideas about our genetic makeup.
“The progenitors of eugenics in Canada and the United States knew that eugenics as a subset of scientific principles was limited,” said Dolmage. “But once people got told the philosophy and the idea of eugenics, they would find uses for it that were unforeseen.” Eugenics was the philosophy, and to thrive, it required endorsers and “opportunity structures.” “That opportunity structure of the university provided the research and provided the resources that allowed eugenics to spread as a popular movement. In turn, the research that universities did into eugenics solidified the research base of the university. It was a symbiotic relationship.”
Eugenics is no longer on university syllabi, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for progress. Dolmage proposed that universities have always been both arbiter of ability, andcreators/enforces of “disability.” “North American academics have delineated and disciplined the border between abled and disabled. … Higher education has needed to construct a series of versions of lower education to create its identity. That justifies the exceptionalism of higher education—and so the steep steps and gates that mark university campuses trace a long history of exclusion.” This has manifested itself in not only psychiatric institutions, but also the Indian Residential School system.
Where can universities go from here? A definitive answer is impossible, but Ineese-Nash believes that decolonization within the education system will serve to create culturally safe spaces where marginalized groups can more easily thrive. “Not everyone believes that decolonization will happen, and in my opinion, it cannot happen until land claims are settled, reparations are paid, and Indigenous self-determination is restored.
“That being said, there are some small steps that can be taken at the institutional level to lessen colonial harm as imparted through academic spaces.” This includes thoughtful reflection on our colonial roles in the land; education on Indigenous history and the reality of colonization; and dismantling of colonial control in collaboration with the Indigenous community.
Dolmage encouraged the audience to reconsider assumptions of education as a strict meritocracy. “All of the myths about education have us believe that it’s effort, not privilege; it’s intellect, not external forces, that allow us to move up and down those steps.
“People who are at the top of those steps are the people least willing to admit that they might have started at the top of those steps. It’s why as soon as you talk about accommodation, somebody says, ‘That creates an unfair advantage’—as though there were no unfair advantages before.”
Original source: https://www.ryerson.ca/news-events/news/2018/07/reckoning-with-ableism-and-colonialism/