Laurie Toby Edison

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The Small, Small World of Classroom Seating

Lynne Murray says:

The marvelously resourceful Stef Maruch pointed out Jenn Leyva’s March 28, 2012 post on not fitting in:

I go to one of the most prestigious universities in the world in one of the greatest cities in the world, and I spend a good chunk of every day worrying about where I sit in class.

You see, I’m too fat for most desks. I mean, I fit in them, but it’s not comfortable. I try to show up to physical chemistry a few minutes early, hoping to get a seat in the back row where there are a few chairs that aren’t attached to the tables. With stadium seating in lecture halls, I try to get a left-handed desk next to a right-handed desk. I put my bag on the chair next to me, mostly as a ruse for claiming an extra inch or two for my shoulders and ass to hang over. The desks are clearly not made to fit my body. I feel like a foot jammed into a stripy sandal one size too small. It fits, but there is skin and fat and flesh oozing out; I look like bread rising. It’s not stopping me from showing up to class and participating, but it’s a constant reminder that the space around me is not meant for my body.

With one glaring difference that I’ll get to in a moment, her story reminded me of the Greek myth of Procrustes, an early serial killer whose famous bed sounds like something invented by a serial killer on an episode of TV’s Criminal Minds:

Procrustes … kept a house by the side of the road where he offered hospitality to passing strangers, who were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night’s rest in his very special bed. Procrustes described it as having the unique property that its length exactly matched whomsoever lay down upon it. What Procrustes didn’t volunteer was the method by which this “one-size-fits-all” was achieved, namely as soon as the guest lay down Procrustes went to work upon him, stretching him on the rack if he was too short for the bed and chopping off his legs if he was too long.

Okay, here’s the difference: Procrustes was treated as a lawbreaker and punished accordingly. In the case of inaccessible classroom seating, the victim, also known as the student, bears the burden of blame for being “too big” for the chairs and must seek out her or his own solution, with no guarantees that accessible seating will be available for any given class or exam.

What medical sociologist, Pattie Thomas Ph.D. calls “homogeneous seating” in Taking Up Space affects a wide range of people who don’t fit into the norm:

In the current anti-fat climate, it is risky to raise the issue of accommodation. That is why I always laugh when someone says to me, “Well, no one else has mentioned that the seating is too small before.”…

My response to that statement is, “Well, I’m telling you about it now.”

I have seen fat people and short people and tall people looking uncomfortable in a number of situations where seating is homogeneous. Most people did not speak up.

The absence of chairs that accommodate a variety of people is reflecting a design that does not consider a diversity of bodies as important. It may be a sin of commission or omission but it still means diversity was not a part of the social conscience of the designer.

The burden of finding accessible seating in class falls on the student, but most colleges don’t make it easy. For example, the University of Minnesota notes that although it’s not advertised, “Disability Services provides accommodations for students requiring special seating because of their weight. Like students with disabilities, overweight students must register with the office.”

But asking for help can backfire, even after the fat student has identified her/himself as disabled, s/he has to continue to demand the scarce seating, which may be refused, withheld or withdrawn at the whim of the professor or teaching assistant.

Allison Brenneise recently discovered this after requesting accessible seating at UM. She had to make a public announcement that she was “too fat for this chair” in order to convince the teacher’s assistant to allow her to continue to sit in an accessible chair.

For 315-pound Brenneise, sitting in the stadium-style seats in Anderson Hall was not an option. She dropped the class.

…Brenneise, a communication studies and sociology senior … approached the professor before class started and told him she would need accommodations for her larger size. He agreed, she said.

But next time she took her seat, she was again told to move. She was mortified to have to tell her teaching assistant the reason she couldn’t.

“I didn’t think I had to say those words,” she said….

“I don’t see where a chair and a table become disabled accommodations,” Brenneise said.

Cheryl Brooks, disability specialist at the University of North Dakota points out:

“People are bigger these days … We’re all different sizes, so those typical little side desks aren’t made for the average person anymore…. It makes sense for a larger person to ask his or her professor for a desk and then receive it. They shouldn’t have to go through a bunch of hoops to get it.”

Okay, maybe a few hoops, the UND has reserved a spot on its website to inform faculty what to do in order to provide accessible seating:

If the reason a student requests an accessible table or chair is obvious, there is no reason to contact DSS for verification of need. In addition, some students may not have a disability-related need but do need a table and chair (e.g., a person of large stature). Faculty can make these arrangements directly …

Even when the university DSS demands no paperwork, the faculty member can decide to help the student or make the student beg for seating at every single class meeting.

One of my personal heroes, Lynn McAfee, has been writing on and fighting for justice on this issue (and many others) for decades.

She explains in a 1994 article, “College, Chairs, and Fat Pride”, that she had been told in her youth not to try to apply to college as a young woman because she was too fat to be accepted. When she did go to college as a middle aged 500-pound woman she had to fight for accessible seating over and over again. (Entire story at the link.)

I love how she called the campus police to help her move fellow students from the only accessible seating so that she could take her exam, I hate that she had to do so and I hate even more the reality that now, nearly 20 years later, fat students may have to do the same. It’s a killer article but I’ll just quote the conclusion:

Most people look at me and think they know all about me. They think they know how I got fat, why I got fat and why I stay fat.

The reality is that no one knows that: not psychologists, not obesity researchers, not anyone. The only thing we know for sure is that diets don’t work.

Becoming, and remaining, a person my size is a lot more complicated than even the experts used to believe.

Here’s the one thing that you can know: you hurt me. You hurt me every day of my life.

You limit my opportunities by your prejudice and you demean me by your assumptions of superiority. You debase my very existence by actions and attitudes that perpetuate the sense of shame that all fat people are supposed to have.

It’s not my body that causes me pain, it’s you.

And fat prejudice hurts you almost as much as it hurts me.

It should not be a battle to find a classroom seat that fits. Heaping additional hardship on fat students seeking an education sends the message “we don’t want you here.” The fight for accessible seating in the classroom and elsewhere has been going on for a long time and it’s far from over. But every fat person who pursues an education and refuses to be excluded wins another battle in the struggle for a better life–not just for those of us who don’t fit in homogenized seating–for everyone who cares about justice and human dignity.

2 Responses to “The Small, Small World of Classroom Seating”

  1. Stef Maruch Says:

    When this comes up for me, I always try to say “This seating is too small” rather than “I am too fat for this seating.” When it comes to sitting down, my body works just fine. If the seat won’t accommodate it, it’s not my body that’s disabled, it’s the seat that is disabled.

  2. Lynne Murray Says:

    Well put, Stef! The mindset of focusing the attention on what needs to be fixed–the chair not my body–is a learned one and It truly does bear repeating and clarifying until NOT taking on the blame for inacessible seating becomes the default.

    This is not an easy mental adjustment because we (myself included) have to fight through a lot of brainwashing to be able to build that assertive verbal response behavior. But you’re right that making it clear that the seating is inadequate (not our bodies) and the responsibility for providing accessible seating rests with the institution that provides the seating.

    Also, thanks for the heads up about Jenn Leyva’s post that inspired this post!

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