Citizenship Logics, Disability and Higher Education


Receiving educational accommodations at schools of secondary education can be, and often is, an arduous process. The procedure for procuring accommodations almost always begins with visits to specialized doctors in order to provide documented proof of a disability. Students are usually offered specific educational accommodations based upon their diagnoses, along with interviews conducted by university staff with the goal of ameliorating educational gaps purportedly “caused” by disabilities. These offerings are usually formalized in writing through a letter or form that students provide to their instructors in order to receive the accommodations that have been offered to them by the university. Common accommodation offerings include allowing students to take additional time to take tests, occasional paper extensions and a paid notetaker, though some schools offer many more including loaning smart pens and giving students access to text conversion (usually from visual to audio).

Educational accommodations, are, of course, a requirement as a consequence of codified disability rights legislation, though schools and universities have varying methods for providing educational access to students with disabilities. Because educational accommodations are required by law, such variations are often more superficial rather than substantive. For example, different schools have different names and styles for the forms of “proof” that students show faculty members. In some universities (including the University of Wisconsin- Madison, University of Michigan, etc.), this form is called a VISA, which stands for Verified Individualized Services and Assessment. While the accommodation process often relies on the logics of surveillance and narratives of suspicion that accompany neoliberal conceptions of rights, the implicit connotations wrought by titling student accommodation forms, “VISA,” bring many of these underlying logics into relief.

Because I am most familiar with how the accommodation process works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I will outline key components of the procedure there. I focus my rhetorical analysis on the VISA form itself (images are included below) as well as processes related to acquiring the VISA. I suggest that the disability VISA invokes the logics of citizenship and surveillance, ultimately positioning students with disabilities as precarious, foreign subjects. That the route to full educational inclusion first requires students to officially identify as exterior to and outside of the very place they (we) seek full access is not only contradictory, it also undermines the goals of universal accessibility.

Photocopy of the front of the McBurney VISA form. It is an official, legal appearing form titled in a black header, “VISA.” It includes an origin date, revision date and expiration date for the form, as well as a list of services a student may be approved for and outlines the consequences for misrepresenting your disability.

Front page of the VISA form

Photocopy of the back of the McBurney VISA form. Primarily text outlining what constitutes a legally recognized disability and how the accommodation process works.

Back page of the VISA form

Visually, a few features of the VISA are striking. Most notable perhaps, is that the card is laminated; students receive only one copy of the VISA that they must present to each instructor. In the beginning weeks of an academic session in particular, students thus need to carry their VISA with them to each class so that the instructor can verify their request for accommodations. In this way the VISA is the gateway to enacting the educational affordances that students with disabilities would otherwise not have access to, absent a VISA. While the disability VISA is of course not synonymous with immigration visas, the disability VISA is still imbricated in logics of citizenship. Implicitly, the disability VISA communicates to students and instructors, that 1) access to the academy is granted only to citizens, and 2) students with disabilities are always already non-citizens, thus necessitating a VISA. However, the VISA also includes an expiration date and a revision date in the upper right corner which means that students with disabilities are only ever granted temporary access to the academy. This is undoubtedly incompatible with the principles of universal design which continue to accrue favor in higher education (including the University of Wisconsin- Madison).

Because students with disabilities must provide proof of their disability, distinguishing able-bodied/“citizens” from dis-abled/“non-citizens” requires surveillance. Surveillance is fully operationalized through an annual “renewal” process that corresponds to the VISA’s expiration date, during which students are interviewed by university staff to ensure that they still require the services listed on their VISA. However, surveillance is also communicated more subtly through the following statement included on the VISA (located in the gray box at the bottom of the form): “I further understand that if I misrepresent my VISA, disability or need for accommodations, I may be found in violation of academic conduct codes under UWS Chapter 17.” Because students present their VISA only to instructors, this statement obliquely positions professors and graduate students as governors of authenticity. In part, authenticity is enforced through the threat of academic punishment. That students with invisible disabilities are using their disability in order to gain scholastic advantage- they reap the rewards of higher education without having to labor like other students- is a common suspicion. This too evidences some resonances with the logics of citizenship and immigration.

Ultimately, the VISA legitimizes the presence of students with disabilities in the classroom, but only through proper documentation and ongoing surveillance. The VISA language upholds ableist norms by communicating that the only bodies that are citizens of the academy are bodies that perform, act, think and move normatively. Bodies beyond these norms must cooperate as docile bodies, for only these kind of non-normative bodies are candidates for temporary residence in higher education. Moreover, I can’t help but wonder how framing students with disabilities as foreign subjects affects the impetus for implementing universal design classrooms. If students with disabilities are not permanent residents of their academic environment, but are instead marked by contingency, precarity and temporality, why should schools work to make their spaces more accessible to a broad range of student abilities? Instead of pushing faculty and university culture to restructure how they teach, what they teach and what they value as good or appropriate educational ends, the VISA language binds disability within identifiable, transient bodies. These moves reinforce security and surveillance, not accessibility and inclusion.

About Author

Caelyn Randall

Caelyn is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She is primarily interested in discourses of disability, especially as they are constituted by narratives of race, gender, sexuality and citizenship.

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