Letter to the editor: When it comes to disability equity, USC falls short

Lauren Schatzman | Daily Trojan

“It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The quote above does not come from a fringe eugenics text or radical manifesto; rather, it comes from the Supreme Court of the United States. The case in question, Buck v. Bell from 1927, legalized the sterilization of people deemed “unfit” for society — people with disabilities or people presumed to have disabilities. The ruling has never been overturned at the federal level. The Nazis even cited Buck v. Bell in their defense during the Nuremberg trials when they were tried for atrocities inspired, in part, by the ideals of former USC president Rufus B. von KleinSmid.

Until June 11, 2020, USC continued to tacitly endorse rhetoric that deemed Black and Indigenous people and people of color as well as people with disabilities unfit for higher education. Two years after Undergraduate Student Government’s public call for USC to rename the Von KleinSmid Center, I was encouraged to see USC finally taking action. I scanned the announcement email one, two, three times. I was sure that I had missed their acknowledgement of von KleinSmid’s legacy within disability eugenics. 

It wasn’t there. In fact, disabled students were conspicuously missing from a long list rattled off in the email of groups of underserved students who have long-merited cultural spaces on campus to call their own, despite the many conversations I had with administrators in which they assured me that establishing a cultural space for disabled students was a priority for the president and senior leadership. The email amounted to the erasure of disabled students, both from history and the present.

By contrast, von KleinSmid’s legacy lives on. With USC’s intimate ties to eugenics policy, our University was undeniably designed to serve those favored by organizations such as von KleinSmid’s Human Betterment Foundation. These definitively white and distinctly non-disabled students set the standard for courses, degrees, exams, architecture, admissions procedures, health care, housing, transportation and virtually every other aspect of higher education.

Today, one in five university students nationwide who live with disabilities quickly learn that universities are literally not built for them. To succeed as a student with disabilities, you must seek “accommodations,” a word that implies an undue burden on the institution’s part to allow you to grace their hallowed grounds. 

“Accommodations,” though well-intentioned and legally compliant, are a symptom of systemic issues plaguing institutions like USC. I spent my last year at USC in meetings with administrators to address the countless inaccessible structures, courses and policies as USG’s Director of Accessibility Affairs. As I have invisible disabilities, administrators were caught off-guard by my advocacy. I most frequently got asked one of two questions: “What does ‘that’ [accessibility] mean?” and “How did you get ‘into’ accessibility?”

While it’s true that “accessibility” is a term with many uses, the word has been inextricably linked to disability rights for decades. It is unacceptable that any administrator making decisions on behalf of the student body should wield such power over the student experience without a strong foundation in accessible policies. It is even more inexcusable for any administrator to not be “into” accessibility. Accessibility is not a special interest or a benevolent gift to students with disabilities — it is a human right.

One offense, in particular, encapsulates what I understood to be USC’s stance toward accessibility: The Title IX office (now the Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX), previously housed under the Office of Equity and Diversity, which protects the interests of protected classes of students (including disability), is inaccessible. In other words, you must seek accommodations to access the office built to protect you from discrimination. 

Despite meeting with campus administrators and passing a public resolution in USG calling for its relocation, the University has made no public effort to rectify the situation. Even more damning, USC settled a lawsuit in March regarding inaccessibility at USC Hotel. Perhaps they are waiting for a lawsuit that will cost them more than $4,000 and nine hotel rooms to promote widespread accessibility; maybe they never will.

Out of naive disbelief, I replied to the June 11 email asking for the administration to make a public acknowledgement of disabled students with regard to von KleinSmid’s legacy. I received an email from a senior official thanking me for my advocacy and assuring me that disability would be a part of conversations moving forward. Once again, I replied, reiterating that the administration could take immediate, meaningful and cost-effective action by merely acknowledging their omission of disabled students. I received no response. 

USC’s stated commitment to equity means very little in the face of its silence on disability rights. We cannot begin to dismantle white supremacy without acknowledging the intimate link between ableism and anti-Blackness. In examining the Department of Public Safety and the Los Angeles Police Department’s roles on our campus, we also cannot neglect the fact that half of all police brutality victims have disabilities. Though their disabilities are often forgotten, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Elijah McClain, Tanisha Anderson and Deborah Danner are just some of the Black disabled folks who have been killed by police in recent years. 

While renaming VKC is a victory for the generations of Black students, Indigenous students and students of color as well as disabled students who were forced to sit in that building knowing its namesake and advocated for their elimination, it is long overdue and incomplete. The administration’s inaction on the issue of disability rights shows that their equity is driven more by social compliance than genuine intent. 

USC has an obligation to prove it is genuinely committed to proactive equity by celebrating disability as part of the diversity it proudly touts on brochures. To start, USC would do well to acknowledge our existence. 

Gwen Howard

USC Class of 2020

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Lauren Schatzman’s name. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.