Westminster Stories: Disability and ableism on campus

In this episode of Westminster Stories, we asked Alex Frol, sophomore biology major, to tell us about her experience with disability on campus. Listen as she discusses ableism, accessibility and common misconceptions about disabled people.

Podcast transcript:

Taylor Stevens, reporter and online manager: Welcome to Westminster Stories, a podcast series forum for students to tell stories that reflect the diversity of our student body. This is Taylor Stevens, and we are here today with Alex Frol, a Westminster sophomore, to talk about disability and ableism on campus through the lense of her own personal experiences.

When we first approached Alex to tell her story, she was cautious. She didn't want to have a conversation with us if we were going to focus more on pity for her prosthetic leg than on how to progress.

However, she eventually agreed to talk, and what follows are pieces of the conversation we had with Alex—told in her own voice, with the interviewers taken out—as she discusses her experiences with insensitivity and inaccessibility on Westminster’s campus, stereotypes against people with disabilities and tips for how to enter a productive conversation about disability.

Alex Frol: So my name is Alex Frol, and I’m a student at Westminster College...and I think the major thing that I wanted to talk about was that my disability and difference does not make it okay for other people to—well, basically your curiosity does not make it okay to interfere with me and my being.  

I think that disability really isn’t talked about a lot just because, you know, we have all these other issues that are really important, too. I just feel like disability isn’t talked about or talked about in the right way. So if you’re curious about someone’s disability, someone will just go up and like, I’m missing a leg so my prosthetic is just up for grabs apparently. So people will come up and just touch it and grab it. Which like no, it’s not okay to touch me or my prosthetic without asking.

And they’ll just ask, they’ll come up—and I’ve known someone for all of two seconds—and they’ll be like, “What happened to you?” Well one, nothing happened to me. I’m awesome; calm down. And two like it’s not your job to know about me for something that personal. People wouldn’t just go up and, you know, if you hurt your leg and just touch it.

Or, like, if you have something personal about yourself—like maybe you don’t like your nose or you don’t like the way your arms look, people wouldn't be like, “What happened to them?” No, that’s a problem. No. It’s part of your body. It’s yours, you know? It’s part of you. You learn to love it, and I love everything about myself, so.

On a couple of instances, I was going without my leg and, you know, just being me. And, you know, my professors were like, “Do you have to buy both shoes?”

Like mmmm, I’m pretty sure you have seen me with two shoes on… but yeah. Then it’s like you have to make a joke. Otherwise they feel awkward and then you feel more awkward and then it’s just a bunch of awkwardness all at once. And you’re like, okay...slowly back away.

Ableism, I guess in my own terms, would be it precludes someone who does not have the ability to do something. So it’s ableist if the only way to get to something is through stairs if you’re in a wheelchair. Or somethings really steep or long and the person can’t walk or crutch or wheel using their wheelchair to get there. So it’s not taking into account other people’s ability.

I think it is more like getting around our campus. I mean, there are disabled spots but… it is really hard for me to go from one class to another class just saying like I can’t really walk that much that day. It’s kind of hard to find a parking spot that’s close. Like if I’m in Dick, there’s no place to park. You can park down in the parking structure, but then you have to walk up. There’s nothing really central that I can get to, so it’s always really like a jaunt.

And though they do try to keep the sidewalks clear during the winter, they’re not really salted well. And so it’s always the fear of like falling. And then, you know, in a couple of the resident halls there’s no elevator, so if you want to go to the third floor—which is the diversity floor in Hogle—you cannot get to it because there’s no elevators.

So that’s a little ableist. Even trying to get down to The Forum, the main elevator sometimes doesn’t work and the smaller elevator you need a key for...but it’s broken. So like anyone with a wheelchair or can’t do stairs that well struggles to get to res life, struggles to get to the student health center, to Hillel, to the counseling center—anything down here it is hard to get to.

You know, in the back of our minds you see someone with a disability and you think, “Oh, poor poor them.” Like “They must be so much worse off than they are, or like than I am because I don’t have to deal with that basically.” You know, it’s the idea that people are worse off because people don’t have all their limbs or they can’t use them the same way and it’s a problem.

It causes problem because people have this idea, so people don’t want to give jobs to the person in a wheelchair. They’re thinking, “Oh, there’s all this medical stuff we’ll have to pay for,” or there’s “all this extra stuff.” I mean, for the most part my disability hasn’t affected me except for other people making it affect me.

Well I mean, its comments. I wouldn’t really think about my life was worse off. I mean, I have a pretty great friend group, family is great, but people are like, “You must be so sad because you have one leg and like you don’t know what it is like to run and to like feel grass in your toes.” And it’s like, well, I have one foot—I can feel it with that. And like running, yeah, I can’t run. But I can walk places. I can like hobble quickly. I can ski.

It's other people putting their biases on me and then it precludes me for doing stuff. It’s frustrating because they don’t know who I am. They just assume that I can’t, and it is really hard to like vocalize it without sounding crazy or like without seeming irrational.

What I would say is think about it. You know, think maybe instead of using the elevator using the stairs and be like, “Hmmm, wouldn’t this be difficult going from like Meldrum first floor to the third floor and being like, this is difficult with two legs and I’m like able-bodied. I wonder what it would be, or how it is for someone who has to use the elevator?” Or has to take like twice as long or something. Just thinking about how it’s different and how you think it could be better and how you could and can help the conversation.

And honestly, if you have a question that’s legit, I or anyone else I’ve met is willing to answer it. But to just ask rude or insensitive questions just to, you know, calm your curiosity does not help, and it makes the person being asked very uncomfortable.

The thing is, like I’m not a victim. I live with this every day. It is part of who I am, but it is not all that I am. There’s other things that make up who I am as a person, just like anyone else. Like I love skiing. I love hanging out with friends. I like to do rock climbing and play Ping-Pong once in awhile. Like all of these things make up who I am, but I am not going to pity myself for not having two legs. There is nothing I can do, and I don’t want to change it.

Like if I did have the option, I don’t think I would choose to have two legs. Like it has made me who I am—a strong individual—and I love that about myself.

Treat them with respect. I think that’s like the main one. Like treat them with respect. Do what you would do for your friend who doesn’t have a disability—basically treat them like a human being. And from there it’s really easy. Like if you don’t know if I am struggling or not, because I have one leg and I can’t reach a box, maybe ask like “Oh, do you need some help with that?” instead of like talking really slowly to me like, “ARREEE YOUUU OKAAAY?” “DO YOU NEEED HEEELP?

Like, I’m okay. Thank you, I would like some help. It’s just those things. Just treat people the way you want to be treated.