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Accessibility: a language we can all learn

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Accessibility: a language we can all learn

Raka Sarkar | Staff Illustrator

Raka Sarkar | Staff Illustrator

Raka Sarkar | Staff Illustrator

Raka Sarkar | Staff Illustrator

By Isabelle Ouyang | Columnist

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Accessibility is a broad term that, societally, we aspire to cultivate, but rarely do we use the word as individuals when it doesn’t apply to us.

University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson posted a video Sept. 27 in which he said he would refuse to accommodate students who wanted to determine their own pronouns. Aside from empathy, is accommodating students’ individual needs really that difficult and time-consuming? And when individuals’ needs are accommodated, what kind of doors can be opened up?

Oftentimes we view accommodations as weaknesses, not realizing why some people may need them. With a change of perception, adjustments can be forms of inclusion and keys to celebrating diversity.

Petra Kuppers, a queer poet, disability activist and English professor from the University of Michigan, delved into the topic of accommodation in her lecture last Tuesday titled “Disability Culture Pedagogies: When Having Fun Together is Radical Practice.”

Kuppers uses a wheelchair, but the lecture, she clarified, would not just be “about the wheelchair.” Rather, Kuppers turned the audience’s attention toward what goes on in classrooms, and how to expand discussion and perception by being reflexive towards students’ needs in all respects of wellness.

Kuppers, with a buzzed head of white hair and a vibrant purple scarf, is known for her writing and performance art about disability.

The two hours she spoke was the most intellectually engaged, interested and alive I’ve felt since the excitement of my classes dwindled into a midterm slump of overwork and routine.

Kuppers focused on the use of disability narratives in classrooms, but also the ways in which all of us are restricted. Kuppers presented accessibility as a language she’s fluent in, and a language we can all practice.

“Nothing real can really happen while we live in stigmatizing societies,” Kuppers said.

The poet and activist touched on the stress that medical students face in school and the workplace, and how the humanities can help. She talked about how visualizing and writing about ideal, even fantastical, hospital spaces — sans constraints like cost or time — can help future doctors contextualize their care for patients.

As an example of how the humanities could meld with the scientific world, her class discussed hydrotherapy, a water-based physical therapy for arthritis patients. Furthermore, she noted how creative and fantasy writing are media through which we can navigate our real-life concerns. Werewolves, she said, serve as an exploration of gender and tentacle-sci-fi, a category of online — typically erotic — fiction, serve as an exploration of physical limitations and disabilities.

Kuppers also spoke about alternative teaching methods. She begins her classes with meditation followed by freewriting. She requires her students to do at least three different wellness activities outside of her class, whether it’s yoga, a walk or a fitness class.

As an interdisciplinary performance artist, Kuppers engages her classroom with concepts enacting a body-mind relationship. Prior to the event, Kuppers prepared a few print copies, or “access copies,” of her lecture to pass out among audience members.

The print copies, complete with reference lists, were available to anyone who wanted them, but mainly reserved for those that could follow along better with a visual reference.

It was a small and subtle gesture, but I was caught off-guard. I didn’t previously consider that anyone in the audience would need visual accommodation.

I assumed that accommodations were exceptional, rather than granted. I thought of all the reasons someone might need a visual reference, including the case that there were people in the audience that were hard of hearing.

Almost all the printouts were claimed immediately, and eagerly. After a pause, I took the last one, wracked with guilt. What if these papers weren’t meant for me? What if someone else needed them more? It turned out, that as a visual learner with ADHD, I was surprised at how much the printout helped me follow Kuppers’ lecture.

The accommodations Kuppers provided that seemed so effortless for her, were uncomfortable and new to me. I learned from them.

The same discomfort, not of impeding on students’ spaces, but of offering accommodations, encourages students to think intelligently about the needs of themselves and others.

After the lecture, I surveyed the audience, scattered sparsely to fit the front section of the relatively large room. I liked the small audience, it felt familiar and intimate. Afterward, students and professors mingled, talking excitedly about Kuppers’ poetry.

While the small audience was nice, I couldn’t help but think about all my friends in the humanities, and even my friends on the pre-med track, who would have enjoyed or gained from Kuppers’ seemingly niche, but broadly applicable lecture.

Whether it’s ramps, bike racks, using pronouns or hearing aids, everyone benefits from a society that tries to include all marginalized groups. What may be burdensome for you can be necessary for someone else’s health and well-being.

I learned something from Kuppers: accessibility isn’t just a buzzword, it is a fundamental value that we should prioritize when it comes treating others with respect and humility.

Isabelle primarily writes on social issues for The Pitt News.

Write to her at


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Accessibility: a language we can all learn