A Building Analogy for Systemic and Academic Neuro-Equity

I’ve started to redeploy a tired analogy related to buildings and barrier-free accessibility that could be useful to you in your neurodiversity advocacy, so I thought I’d share. I hope my physically disabled comrades take no offense to deploying the analogy; I mean nothing by it other than solidarity.

The Building

If a building built above ground level is not accessible to all, we do not fault a person in the wheelchair, we do not upbraid them for their wheelchair. We fault the building. We say, ‘Building! Why don’t you have a ramp? Where is the lift built in next to the stairs? How can these human beings access this building if you do not provide them alternative forms of access?’

Systemic Neuro-Equitable Access: Barrier-Free Accessibility

First of all, think of this building as a social system—i.e., a system of expectations and frameworks (a structured structure) by which one understands their experiences and interactions (a structuring structure)* as well as bureaucratic, socioeconomic and political systems.

So don’t fault the neurodivergent person; fault the building, the system. Work to change the building: make our social systems equitably accessible.

But it’s important that this be equitable, not equal, access: one could add an entrance at ground level to our above-ground building (‘equality,’ insofar as anyone could equally well be technically in the building), but it is no good without removing the need for an alternative access just inside the door at ground-level for getting to the building’s above-ground ground floor (‘equity’). ‘Equal access’ like ‘equal opportunity’ does not do any good whatsoever. To remove a barrier, one cannot simply move the barrier a step forward; it must be removed from the path entirely. For our badly designed building there must be alternative means of access to make it equitable.

The same goes for social systems. There must be the social equivalent of alternative modes of access. Neurodivergent ways of doing, communicating, thinking and being must be given equitable space in our social systems.

*. I find Pierre Bourdieu’s formulation of habitus (plural habitūs) to be the most comprehensive systematic theory of human cognitive frameworks, as those structured structuring structures, habitūs, by which we perceive and apperceive the world around us. See especially his groundbreaking Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977).

Education and Neuro-Equitable Access: Modal Flexibility

Second of all, in an academic context, think of the building as a set of curriculum-related ‘standards’: one would not replace the building itself, the standards, but, as we’ve established, one would make the building equitably accessible: academic achievement must also be equitably accessible.

What is needed in academics is the equivalent of equitable building access: namely, modal flexibility. Neurodivergent students require educators, mentors, administrators and staff who are flexible about ways and means, aka modalities.

What does it matter how Student X conveys her command of the material? If a student cannot sit for hours, does it matter to you that they stand, that they pace? Why, truly, does it matter to you? If a student is better able to function remotely, periodically meeting with you (also remotely), perhaps during your office hours, to discuss issues one-on-one, and who submits research papers in place of taking exams—has that student not done the work necessary to earn credit for that class? What does it matter, honestly, whether a student demonstrates the same knowledge as you by the same paths as you?

What actually matters is knowledge-acquisition, skill-building, perspective-formation and intellectual progress, which current modes of assessment do not universally accommodate. Modal flexibility is crucial to neuro-equity in academics.

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