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SPM not inclusive of differently-abled students

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More often than not, it’s the first thing you see about me. Before my tattoos, scars or any other physical quality that makes me unique, it’s the good old Muscular Dystrophy – here since day one and not going anywhere anytime soon – that people tend to notice first.

I’ve pretty much made my peace with that. It’s a thing, whatever. I’ll crack jokes about it. There will be that awkward moment where people aren’t sure whether or not they should laugh, so I tell them that by all means, they can, while quietly trying to normalize my disability.

For me, disability isn’t so much a full blown problem as it is a series of inconveniences. Only recently have I made the connection that my disability isn’t even the inconvenience. I am excellent at having Muscular Dystrophy. The problem is an ableist society.

Ableism, like all of the other -isms, often goes unnoticed by the people who don’t deal with it regularly, be that directly or indirectly. My sister is temporarily able-bodied, but she notices when things are inaccessible because she’s been looking out for me for the past 22 years. However, if you’re not disabled or close to someone with a disability, it is so easy to overlook all of the little things that become big things when a disabled person inevitably encounters them at random intervals throughout their life.

St. Olaf is no exception to the rule. At face value, the Studies in Physical Movement (SPM) general education (GE) requirement seems great. What a way to promote healthy lifestyle habits. However, a closer look at the requirement makes it clear that this GE was not written with everyone on campus in mind. I know I’m not the first person who has searched course by course on the Student Information System (SIS), trying desperately to find an SPM class that would work for me. If the SPM requirement is not made more accommodating for people of all abilities, I know I won’t be the last student to engage in this type of search. The reality is, no SPM course description says that accommodations will be provided. Accessibility is not centered. Some students are lucky, and hear from peers about professors who are willing to provide accommodations. Others will literally work themselves sick trying to achieve unrealistic expectations of unsympathetic professors.

To argue that the SPM requirement is fine as is, completely discounts the lived experience of those students who say otherwise. Students with disabilities have to jump through enough hoops regarding accessibility in everyday life – should a GE requirement at an educational institution be another one of those obstacles?

The answer is no. As St. Olaf is restructuring GE requirements, it has an obligation to do better for its chronically ill and disabled students. Not all of those students push around a walker or cruise around campus on a bright red scooter, but all of them are valid and deserve to be heard.

As it stands, the SPM requirement seeks to “promote lifelong health and wellness of the whole person.” There are plenty of ways this outcome could be achieved. A class on nutrition could promote healthy eating habits. A class on adaptive exercises could be built into the system so disabled students can have a safe place where they will not be expected to do activities that are unrealistic for them.

Attendance requirements also need to go out the window. Temporarily able-bodied people must trust that chronically ill and disabled students will come as they are able, but that some days gym class would just be too much. As a disabled person, I’ve spent my life explaining myself to other people, and I deserve better. Just once, I deserve a system built with me in mind, rather than as an afterthought.


Kayla Carlson ‘19 (carlso10@stolaf.edu) is from Goodhue, Minn. Her major is social work.