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I Can't Take the Stairs: A Disabled Grad Student's Perspective

"Save electricity, take the stairs!"

The same picture seems to haunt every elevator I see. To be fair, I haven’t explored all of campus – or even most of campus, really – but in my little corner of USC Columbia's campus, every time I take the elevator, the little note seems ubiquitous. It probably seems innocuous, but in many ways it captures what it’s like to live as a disabled person in an inaccessible world. Your choices are wrong, it says. Your needs are being judged, it says.

For better or worse, I need the elevator. In a pinch, I can usually manage a flight of stairs – but only in a pinch. Climbing stairs will leave me shaky, dizzy; my heart rate will elevate rapidly and I might even pass out, depending on how bad things get. Not exactly the state you want to be in walking into a three hour seminar on Herman Melville and the American identity. And that’s just from one flight of stairs. So the elevator is often an unhappy necessity. Being at the mercy of the elevator is a risk, especially in the building where most of my first year seminars took place. The elevator in this building is slow, moody, and unreliable. I have a friend who refuses to set foot in that elevator, and for good reason. I never got stuck, but every time I went to class, I hesitantly put my faith in that creaky machine, wondering if this was the time I didn’t make it to class in one piece.

You would think, then, that getting to class would be the hard part, and that once you’re there things would go smoothly. Except then you still have a three hour seminar on Melville to get through. And here’s the thing – that’s a three hour seminar on Melville in the world’s most uncomfortable chair. Those university desks were not designed for human occupation, I’m certain of it. And they definitely were not designed for disabled human occupation. An hour in, my chronic pain condition is flaring bright red. The professor usually gives a break halfway through, which lets me get up and stretch my legs a little bit. I’ll take any excuse to unfold myself from that tiny chair, and my friend comes with me to make sure I get around okay. But then there’s still another hour or more to get through. I struggle with American literature at the best of times, and three hours in a torture chair is not the best of times.

Those university desks were not designed for human occupation, I’m certain of it. And they definitely were not designed for disabled human occupation.

Colleen Etman

Still, I look back fondly on that creaky elevator and those horrible desks (okay, maybe not the desks). Halfway through my second semester, COVID hit, and I found myself losing out on opportunities as my path diverged from my classmates. As they returned to campus, slowly but surely, I stayed behind a computer screen at home, held back by health conditions too fragile to risk COVID. I missed out on classes that would have worked well with my field of study (and been fun to take) because they were in-person only. I had to skip networking and professional development opportunities. My ability to take part in social organizations was basically nil. Disabled students have always had to live a little on the fringes of things, but COVID really threw this into sharp relief.

In my third year, the unthinkable happened (literally, I still sometimes can’t believe it). I had a stroke – possibly a result of COVID infection causing long-term effects (see, I told you COVID was too risky for me!). Suddenly, everything in my life was thrown for a loop. What happens when you’re a graduate student with brain damage? My language processing centers were damaged. I struggled with finding words and expressing myself. I’m getting a PhD in English. You see where this is a problem, right? My exams were that year; I had to create a program of study, develop mastery, and prove I knew what I was talking about by writing extensive essays and defending my work to a committee. A daunting task to anyone, let alone someone recovering from a stroke.

And yet, here I am today, in my fifth (and hopefully final) year of my program. I just turned in my third chapter of my dissertation. I passed those exams two years ago. I finished my coursework. I even took a course in Old English to fulfill my language requirement, and somehow managed to pass despite having extensive damage to my language processing centers (and, you know, the fact that Old English is hard).

Succeeding as a disabled student isn’t impossible. It’s not easy, to be sure. From the littlest things, like managing to sit in a painful chair for the entirety of a seminar, to the big things, like struggling with brain damage, being disabled shapes your entire relationship with your education. But it doesn’t need to hold you back. I got in with the Student Disability Resource Center after my stroke, and it made a huge difference. Turns out, brain damage nets you extra time on exams – a major bonus when I realized I messed up my essays and needed to redo them. I also needed to learn to advocate for myself, too, though. I told my advisor about my stroke as soon as I came back, and she was able to work with me when it came to doing my oral defense.

I still take the elevator, when I’m on campus. The signs still catch my eye, and I always feel like I’m being judged. I don’t want to waste electricity, I think. I can’t take the stairs. But then I remind myself that I am doing what’s best for me. And by doing what’s best for me all this time, I’ve managed to make it this far. Why stop now?

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.