We who live in American society do not need to look up “individualism” on Wikipedia or in our old dictionaries. We live, breathe, and preach individualism. We know that individualism is a great, wonderful, and inspiring ideal. We know that if we want to get anywhere, we are the only ones who can do it, and we can certainly do it without help from anyone else.
Individualism should mean the power of the individual. It should me that we do what we can and what we do is what is good and needed for ourselves. Individualism should mean that we do not blindly follow others because it is easy. Individualism should mean that we have different religions, different ways of living, and different ways of seeing things.
This is not what individualism is in American society. Instead, individualism has become an outright refusal to even think of lending a hand to someone who might need help. Individualism has become conflated with the Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps way of living. For example, if someone gets a bad grade, it is only because they didn’t try too hard. The fault always lies with the individual. The bad grade cannot be because of a learning disability, or that the professor couldn’t get his material across. It couldn’t be that the student missed too many classes because it was physically difficult to get to class. It couldn’t be that the teacher was unwilling to work with the student. No. It is always because the student didn’t work hard enough. Sometimes it is because the student didn’t work hard enough, but I think many times, students, especially learning and/or physically disabled students, are required to go above and beyond what should be expected from them for something so simple as a grade.
Since anybody who is not a learning and/or physically disabled student is probably going “what’s the big deal, I work hard, so should they!’ I feel that I must explain more in depth about the difficulties that learning and/or physically disabled students face that non-learning and/or able-bodied students do not have to deal with. While I am not a learning disabled student, I do go through a similar process of asking teachers for accommodations. A learning disabled student is going to have a harder time just in general of learning the material than non-learning disabled students, which means they might need more time on tests, more time for their work, or even a different way of laying out the information. This does not mean that they are getting an easier time. In fact, they have to jump through hoops to prove their learning disability, and then pray that the teacher will be nice enough to allow them their accommodations. This is all a lot of work and effort that no one would go through if they felt that they could pass the class any other way.
Now I am a physically disabled student. I used to run to class when I was close to being late. I could choose any of the numerous stairwells that led to the classes in the basement (and many of my classes do take place in the basement, down at least two flights of stairs). If I was sick, I had the privilege of knowing that I could make a dash out of the classroom and come back. And if I was sick, I had the privilege of knowing that I could use one of my two or three allowed absences without too much of a problem. In fact, I could even take a skip day and not worry about it. Just about everyone skips a class at some point just for fun without it affecting their grade. A disabled student does not have that luxury. They cannot skip a class because what is considered skipping for them is more often an inability to get to class. Now, I’ve gone through the hoops of proving my disability and I’ve even received official forms that tell my professors that I need a flexible attendance schedule and will do extra work on the days that I cannot physically make it. But at the end, what am I relying on? I am not relying on myself; my body can turn on me at any time, but instead I have no choice but to rely on the decisions of my professors, regardless of whether or not they are following school guidelines and/or ADA protocol.
Once again, my bodily autonomy is taken from me but this time, it is taken from me under the guise of individualism. I haven’t made it to all my classes this semester, and I’m only a week into them. It is not because I am lazy; it is because I am tired. I am physically, emotionally, and mentally tired. Even with handicap parking I still walk the equivalent amount that a student without pain walks. Why? They hide our elevators at our school. There’s always a large amount of stairs for easy accessibility, but I cannot use them. The ramps are far longer than they need to be, and once again, out of sight. If I want to use a restroom comfortably I have to search whole different buildings, because the majority of them are not handicap accessible. On my crutches I have to swing over couches in the restrooms because I cannot squeeze by. In a wheelchair I have to hope that someone is around to hold open the door or fight it by myself because there are no door opener buttons, and then sometimes I do all that work only to realize that there is not even a handicap stall even in the bathroom. On my good enough days to use a cane, I can only do so if I have the knowledge that there is a restroom close enough to the class or if I can get a close enough parking spot to my class.
When I go to my classrooms, I have to hope that there’s a spot close enough to the door, so I don’t have to do extra walking. If I get to class too early, the doors are not open, and I have to stand and be in extra pain before I even make it to the lesson. If I get there too late, the seats that are the closest are almost always taken and points are often deducted for coming in late, regardless if the elevator was out of order.
And this is all difficult and painful on a bright, sunny day. When it rains or snows, this becomes not only immensely difficult, it also becomes dangerous. Most generic mobility devices are not made for rough weather, and the idea that you can just go out and buy something to make the devices better is classist. I have a harder time just getting to class than an able-bodied student. Yet it is expected of me to show up at every single one, on time, and focused enough to learn. Right now I am lucky that half of the professors I have, are willing to work with me. I am unlucky enough, that the other half refuses. Sure, I have my school’s disability office behind me along with the ADA, but at the end of it, it’s the professors who grade me. And there seems to be a huge lack of caring about the requirements of the ADA by many professors.
This is because of what we have defined as individualism. It has become an “If I can do it, so you can you” attitude that is not only arrogant and bigoted, but also harmful. It has become an obsessive idea that people need to do everything themselves and for themselves and if someone cannot, then it is their own fault and no one else’s.
What happened to helping each other? What happened to asking if you could give a hand? What happened to giving and receiving? Individualism happened.
If we help our friends with their grammar in their work, does that mean that their work has lost some of its value?
If someone carries a friend’s books, does that make them a lesser person, or worse, a burden on society?
Should we not comfort friends or family after a break-ups?
Should we not study together?
Should we not be friendly and helpful?
Individualism has brought us to a place where we ignore people who are struggling, we force ourselves to struggle through, and blame people in worse circumstances that they are only in them of their own accord. We have taken race, gender, sexual orientations, and disabilities completely out of the picture without realizing how each inevitably affects us differently.
Individualism has become a disease that has infected us. Many of us just do not care about the plights of others unless it directly affects us. If this is what individualism is, then I want no part of it. Count me out.