In her words, “at least once a month,” she would upload essentially the same video about the spectrum of disability.
“It looks like we’re due for another one of those videos,” she said cheerily in a TikTok, responding to a troll who commented, “She moved her legs so she is not actually disabled.”
“Not all wheelchair users are paralyzed,” she continued in the clip. “There [are] many conditions where someone might need to use a wheelchair.”
While Pol offers a smile throughout the entire video, it’s still exhausting as a disabled TikTok creator to constantly battle the misinformation and trolling that her account sees. There’s a pressure Pol feels to educate her followers that most creators don’t think about. But the best-case scenario is that she can help educate someone out there — even if they weren’t the person to leave a comment in the first place.
“For quite a few months, every single week, I would make the same post or some variation of it, saying not all those [wheelchair] users are paralyzed, because every single time I did that, I would reach someone new who didn’t have that understanding,” she explained to In The Know. “A lot of the ableist comments that I was getting at that point in time were coming from a place of either intentional harm or straight-up ignorance, and it’s not always possible to tell the difference between the two.”
Pol is finishing up her final year at college, where she started as a freshman wanting to pursue a biology degree and eventually apply for medical school. But she found herself navigating a world she’d never experienced — not even secondhand through a disabled friend or family member.
“I had the privilege of joining campus as an able-bodied student,” she said. “[Then] my disability started two years ago [and] most of the things I know now about disability, I had no clue. Like, there were so many things that were just not on my radar at all pertaining to disability and disabled experiences.”
While living in off-campus housing during the beginning of the pandemic, Pol decided to join TikTok as a way to get some funding for a new support dog. Her previous dog, who she’d had for the first two years of college, passed away. This time around, Pol knew she wouldn’t be able to devote the time and energy necessary to retrain a new dog, so she was looking for older and more experienced ones, which were thus more expensive.
“As my platform continues to grow because a lot of people are following me for dancing and other things I do, [I wanted to] display education mixed in with all of that,” she said.
Many of Pol’s TikTok videos deal with how to interact with disabled people. As she mentioned, some of the ableist comments she received came from ignorant people — a mindset she can empathize with, since she certainly didn’t know two years ago what she knows now.
“Disability is not a bad word, but some people think that it is,” Pol explained. “I will have people come into my comment section and tell me, ‘You’re not disabled. All I see is your ability,’ or, ‘You’re not disabled. You’re just differently-abled.’ And my response to that is, no, I am disabled. See me as I am, see my disability as it is. See my abilities as they are. Like, let’s not pretend like we’re in a magical fairy world, and I can just fly and do magic.”
In fact, Pol is very straightforward about the disadvantages she faces from being disabled and why it’s much more important and helpful to campaign for better accessibility.
“A legitimately disabled person needs an additional $1,500 per month to have the same quality of life as non-disabled people,” she said. “I don’t think I have a single disabled friend who actually has all of their support needs currently being met. Back in December , I started my referral to get a wheelchair. It took me eight months to get my wheelchair. Back in November , I applied to a program to get in-home services because I needed help with laundry and cooking and cleaning. I couldn’t take care of my space. It took me six months to get access, and by the time I got access, I needed an even higher level of home support care, which I didn’t get until last month.”
On top of everything else, Pol had to stop taking biology classes.
“Our society is so inherently ableist that higher education is just physically, completely inaccessible, regardless of your intelligence or your abilities,” she said. “You can’t do it. A lot of people just can’t because of how everything is structured. So, no, I’m no longer going to medical school.”
Amanda Kraus, a campus administrator at the University of Arizona, wrote for the Liberal Education that as more and more higher education institutions “reckon with the ramifications of [their] exclusive history,” disabled students continue to be excluded.
“Like other systems, higher education is built upon institutionalized ableism. Ableism is a system that advantages non-disabled people and centers their experiences,” Kraus wrote. “According to the social model of disability, individuals are not disabled by their impairments but by the ableist environments and attitudes that exclude and disadvantage them.”
“I go to a state school — there is no reason for my campus not to be accessible,” Pol added. “They’re doing pretty much the bare minimum for ADA compliance when we could be the gold standard.”
The ADA, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, became effective in 1990, but society still hasn’t made that shift regarding many accessibility issues, particularly for students.
“For example, if a classroom is not accessible, [the college] just move[s] it to an accessible location for that disabled student,” Pol said. “But I just ran into a kid yesterday who was on crutches for the last two weeks and hasn’t been going to classes because he didn’t realize that there were services available to help him get around campus, but also because he became disabled in the middle of the semester. That could happen to anyone.”
It’s particularly frustrating because, as Kraus pointed out in her article, colleges have proven they have the funds and resources to quickly instate more accessible accommodations.
“In spring 2020, colleges and universities transitioned to remote teaching, learning and working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kraus wrote. “Suddenly, many practices that had previously been reserved for disability-related accommodations — such as working remotely, flexible schedules and attendance policies, captioned class lectures and readily available online course materials — became the norm.”
Pol has since become involved with disabled student groups on campus and has taken it upon herself to coordinate with dining hall managers to make dining experiences more accessible and meet with the school’s equal opportunity officer and ADA manager.
“As a disabled student, I am paying the exact same tuition and fees as every other student, so I deserve the exact same ease of access as any other student,” she said.
Accessibility is also commonly misunderstood as an issue that only impacts or benefits a certain percentage of the population. Pol is also very passionate about eco-ableism — the discrimination toward disabled people through an environmental lens — particularly as conversations around climate change and single-use plastics increase.
“To not look at climate change from a disability rights issue [perspective] would just be wrong,” Pol explained. “Disability is an afterthought … We can either approach climate change from a disability perspective to include accessibility into the original design[s] or we can just forget about it.”
As Pol heads toward graduation, her TikTok continues to be a creative and educational outlet. Pol also wants to dismantle the “fear” non-disabled people have about disabled experiences, and just two days ago asked her almost 400,000 followers to flood the hashtag #DisabilityJoy.
“It just ties back into able-bodied people not having the context [or] the awareness of disabled experiences,” Pol explained in regards to her variety of content. “I love what I’m doing right now … A lot of my edits and changes I make to my videos are figuring out how to better word things, how to better spread the message. Like, what is the focus? What is the point?”
For more reading about intersectional disability and authentic storytelling in media, check out Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Project. For more on disabled joy, Jen White-Johnson makes visuals that challenge the media’s erasure of young, Black disabled people. To read more on why accessibility is so important to design, Liz Jackson founded The Disabled List, an advocacy group building spaces for “disabled people to do disabled things.”
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