Laptop Bans are Academic Ableism

The CHRONICles is a fortnightly column by Caroline Marie McDonagh-Delves and Rachel Charlton-Dailey discussing life with chronic illness, chronic pain and disability. Content warning: this column will regularly discuss ableism and topics relating to disability.

When I was 17, I sat the last exam that I would ever complete by hand. In the timetable of Caroline’s pinpoint-able chronic pain, the knees started at 16, followed by one hand at 17, one at 18, shoulder at 20 and then it all went to sh*t from there. Since then, I’ve not been able to write for prolonged periods of time since. This, of course, includes in lectures.

At university, Psychology 101 didn’t really lend itself much to laptop note taking, with desks so small I couldn’t have fit my current laptop on it, never mind the one I had at the time. See, when I’d bought that one, it was to have at home. The 17 inch widescreen made sense when you think that I was using it for playing The Sims and watching DVDs. It made much less sense when it came to putting it into a protective bag that cost more than any handbag I’ve ever owned and carting it across campus. By second year when it became 100% necessary, the hinges were breaking and the battery wouldn’t last more than 10 minutes, but it’s all I had.

I think I opened the floodgates. Nobody in my lecture theatres had a computer until I did. My necessity for note taking made it acceptable for other people to type too. I don’t know which of my fellow students suffered with issues that meant that they struggled to write notes for an hour and which of them just wanted to go on Facebook with it being less obvious than looking down at their lap at their phone, but they could now.

None of our lecturers had a problem with notes being taken on computers. Or, at least, if they did, they never said so. Nobody ever tried to ban these things. But my experience is not universal. It’s not an uncommon thing to see teachers or lecturers moaning about — the sounds of fans and typing, the fact that students may be slacking off much more easily, the fact that some people think you don’t pay attention to electronic media in the same way that you do print media. 

“Disability is a very personal thing, and if you don’t want to continuously tell people about yours, then you shouldn’t have to do so.”

Under the Equality Act, if a lecturer had instituted a laptop ban, it would have been easy to get an exemption by going to the very helpful student services — which would be fine for me, since I’ve always been very open about my disability. But it wouldn’t necessarily be as easy for everyone. Requiring an exemption to the ban would force a choice between outing yourself or suffering without. I worry that “suffering without” would have been other people’s choice.

It just isn’t fair to open someone up to the scrutiny of their classmates like that if there is no need for them to be. Disability is a very personal thing, and if you don’t want to continuously tell people about yours, then you shouldn’t have to do so.

Even with my openness people still question me, and it still irritates me. One day I did arrive to find someone else plugged into the plug socket I had been using three times a week for the last 6 weeks. Someone I had mutual friends with and therefore knew to be abled. Someone who made no attempt to listen to my explanation and who questioned the necessity that I was trying to tell them about.

With the lecturer behind me about ready to start, I did what I had to do. I took the Macbook charger out of the wall and I threw it at them. I realise now that, yes, I could have handled that much better than I did, but even with me being particularly open about my disability and without me being an exception people could zone in on to question, I was already sick of the situation. They packed up and stormed out, leaving the lecturer to ask if it was something she did.

My motivation wasn’t selfishness, or desire for ease of note taking — it was necessity. But it was still questioned; it was still a problem. I was in the frame of mind to stand my ground on in that situation, albeit maybe a tad over emotionally, but not everyone would be. Allowance of this kind of adaptation is a force for good in general, even if you think some students might be slacking off on Facebook instead.

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