When our friends who chose schools in more temperate climates are walking around in flannels and jackets in mid-January and we Batesies are piling on our fifth wool sweater, it’s hard not to feel bitter. This weekend, however, was a different story. Winter storm Jonas pummeled those south of us with feet of snow while we watched from sunny (albeit freezing) Maine. I’m sure your Facebook news feed was as clogged with snowman selfies, sledding videos, and statuses about classes being canceled as mine was. And, like me, I’m sure all these posts elicited some eye rolls—but, really, it was nice to see your friends appreciating what you go through every year in Maine. Except they got to miss class, and that almost never happens at Bates.
In all honesty, this doesn’t really have a huge impact on my life. Sure, it would be nice to wake up one morning and see fresh snow out my window and be content with the knowledge that I do not have to walk in it, but I enjoy my classes and I enjoy walking in the snow. Even if those things weren’t the case, I am able-bodied and capable of getting to class safely. However, not everyone on this campus is, and for professors and the administration to assume otherwise is extremely ableist.
In a way, the Bates community prides itself on its ability to put up with harsh winter conditions—so much so that it’s almost a running joke on campus. A slideshow on the Bates College website during January 2015’s blizzard highlights professors who held classes despite the whiteout conditions. Interviews with students feature them smiling under layers of scarves and coats, braving the storm to make it to class or to go skiing, while one photo shows the swim team posing in bathing suits with snow falling heavily around them. The article embodies the brawny outdoorsman spirit that seems to be expected of Bates students and anyone who withstands Maine’s winters. This image is so prevalent that it’s become an expectation. Instead of it being an eccentricity to wear shorts in the winter, snowshoe to class, or even just be talented enough to stay stable on slick sidewalks, it’s the norm.
It shouldn’t be, though. Having this prevailing perception that everyone is able to face winter the same way makes it much harder for those who can’t to speak up. If everyone seems to be making it to class easily, one might feel inadequate if physical limitations keep him or her from doing so. They might fear that their professor won’t take them seriously if they say they don’t feel safe walking to class when everyone else was able to get there without injury. This results in a double-bind situation: either attempt to attend class and risk getting gravely hurt or miss class and risk being penalized for circumstances beyond your control. Disabilities are frequently invisible, which means they are all too easily ignored and rarely spoken about. Regardless, no one should have to prove their disability in order to receive accommodation or to ensure their own safety.
As more severe winter weather approaches, I urge professors to adopt a snow policy that allows students to stay home if they feel they cannot safely trek through ice and snowbanks. Many professors already do this, and I’m sure all professors would be understanding if a student came forward. However, it’s important for our community to realize that what may be an inconvenience for one person could be an insurmountable challenge for someone else and to create policies that recognize differences in ability. This should be something the administration makes a point to enforce. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for the fact that we can scale snow drifts in sub-zero temperatures, we should take pride in the fact that Bates is a place of compassionate people—one that is more than capable of showing courtesy to those members of our community that need accommodations.