Jay Dolmage is a professor at the University of Waterloo and an interdisciplinary scholar for disability studies and rhetoric and composition. His first published book, Disability Rhetoric (2014), discussed how ancient rhetorical theories apply to modern disability studies. Recently, he published his second book, Academic Ableism (2017), which explored the scope of disability studies in higher education. This book consists of six chapters and described how academic ableism manifests as related to accommodations, power dynamics, multimodality, universal design, and popular films about college life.

The purpose of this book was to demonstrate the landmark of academic ableism in higher education, where non-disabled people had built barriers to equal access and opportunity to exclude disabled students at universities. To develop this understanding, Dolmage built upon the crucial work of disability studies scholars who have revealed the racist, ableist, and eugenicist roots of higher education and academic culture. Dolmage brought together two specific academic fields: rhetoric and disability studies. As Dolmage did in his previous work in Disability Rhetoric (2014), he used rhetoric as a strategic study of the circulation of power through communication and focused on universities as a rhetorical space through critique, persuasion, and pedagogy. Dolmage illustrated the power dynamic of ableism in higher education and the marginalization of disabled students in North American universities.

Academic Apologia

Dolmage began by providing an overview of disability studies referenced by other disability studies scholars. He pointed out that higher education employed logics of ableism and disablism, referring to Kumari Campbell's (2009) definition: "a set of assumption (conscious or unconscious) and practices that promote the differential or unequal treatment of people because of actual or presumed disabilities" (p. 4). Dolmage described the real tragedies of higher education, including disproportionately small disabled student populations, limited academic jobs for disabled PhDs, and the struggles of international disabled students. He demonstrated that universities make excuses to exclude disabled students from equal access to academic opportunities. Dolmage referred to this as ableist apologia, which originated from Aristotle's apologia.

I myself am a member of a small disabled student population in academia; I have seen few job opportunities, and even though I am on track to earn my PhD, I have faced cultural, linguistic, and financial challenges due to my status as an international Deaf student. I would like to suggest introducing the term academic apologia to describe specific situations within academia that involve discrimination against disabled students, because ableist apologia could be expanded to all academic and non-academic situations.

I have often encountered academic apologia when I was studying for my bachelor's, my master's, my PhD, and even in my workplaces in higher education. The most common situations of academic apologia I have experienced involve a professor dismissing my need for a captioned video with "Sorry, the video was not captioned as it was too old." Beyond my classroom, I have encountered ableist apologia in healthcare settings or public areas as well: doctors claimed that "Sorry, we provide a video remote interpreter, not an in-person interpreter," ignoring my communication preference; and staff claimed "Sorry, we do not provide an interpreter for the tour, only a transcript," skirting interpreter costs. Thus, the term ableist apologia helped me to understand the current issues which I have faced as a Deaf student in higher education.

walking on campus
Photo credit: Elizabeth Monge / University of Illinois at Chicago (2016)