Writer Sarah Fawn Montgomery talks ableism, COVID-19, and the reality of teaching at a state college

Writer Sarah Fawn Montgomery talks ableism, COVID-19, and the reality of teaching at a state college

Years into the COVID-19 pandemic, people are understandably eager to try and get back into “normal” life again. But the hard reality is that the public health crisis is far from over, and we are still learning how COVID-19 impacts us in both the short and long term. While some folks are eager to move away from masking—including in indoor spaces, like restaurants and classrooms—we know that masks actually do work pretty darn well at reducing the spread of the virus. Masks also work well for reducing the spread of common seasonal illnesses, like the flu or colds, too.

So, why the big rush to pretend the pandemic is behind us? Capitalism, really. Plus Republicans who have made conspiracy theories about the pandemic their entire identity and political platform aren’t about to give that up. And all the while, the general public is trying to navigate life in a world that isn’t post-COVID, but people want it to be.

This is concerning for everyone. But it’s especially worrisome for folks who are particularly at risk for complications and long-term side effects, like people who are immunocompromised, disabled, unhoused, and so on. 

I was lucky to connect with Sarah Fawn Montgomery, a brilliant writer and assistant professor at the state college I myself graduated from, Bridgewater State University, located in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. Though our paths never crossed on campus, I’m always excited to amplify the stories and experiences of people who attend or work at public colleges. Why? Because we tend to live in opposition to the “Ivy League tower” stereotype so many conservatives try to spew onto higher education. Especially when it comes to things like access, student debt, and privilege.

Montgomery was kind enough to participate in an email interview with Daily Kos to discuss her incredible new essay collection, Halfway from Home, as well as her perspective on Republican anti-intellectual rallying cries, from denying COVID-19, to book bans, to insisting that colleges are (somehow) priming students to be leftists elites.

This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.

MH: Can you summarize what your book, Halfway from Home, is about for people who aren’t familiar with your work?
 
SFM: Halfway from Home is a lyric essay collection about nostalgia, climate change, and searching for home during emotional and environmental collapse. I grew up in a chaotic home and left at 18 to chase restlessness across the country, claiming places on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and on the East Coast while my family fell further into addiction, illness, and poverty.

The essays in this collection are about those many homes—they explore the tide pools and monarch groves of California, the fossil beds and grass prairies of Nebraska, and the scrimshaw shops and tangled forests of Massachusetts. They also grieve a vanishing world as the nation grows increasingly divided while the natural world is under siege by wildfire, tornados, and unrelenting storms.

Since it is difficult to move forward when you long for the past, this collection also examines permanence, human perceptions of time, and our understanding of history. Essays explore the psychology of nostalgia and its uses across cultures and centuries, the invention of timekeeping devices, and the psychology of self-perception. Essays also examine growing up in the 90s and what it means to straddle millennia, to come of age at the moment of no return.

This book is a blend of lyric memoir and lamenting cultural critique, a search for how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. Ultimately, I hope this collection holds a mirror up to America and asks us to reflect on our past before we run out of time to save our future.
 

MH: In what ways do you think living with a disability impacts your writing?

 SFM: My mental illness memoir, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, put me on the map as a writer and allowed me to rewrite narratives of disability that favor a triumphant recovery arc in favor of a more truthful story where disabled characters are not magically cured but manage to find happiness anyway. In a world that will not listen to disabled people—a world that now actively seeks to erase us through pandemic policies—writing is a way to come to voice, to create action, to demand change.

Living with disability allows me to claim it on the page as a rich asset-based identity as opposed to the stigmatized existence the abled world typically assumes of us. Claiming my narrative as a disabled person on the page has since allowed me to claim many stories and spaces that are typically denied to disabled people and to write about the many things tied to disability justice: pandemic policy, climate change, higher education, and medical reform, to name just a few.

MH: What should every able-bodied person know about the barriers and obstacles disabled folks face? 
 
SFM: The barriers facing disabled people exist on every level. Access to things like public transportation, professional and community spaces, education systems, and medical care is disrupted when the lack of [American with Disabilities Act] ADA compliance physically prevents disabled people from entering and fully utilizing spaces. Lighting and noise pollution can be dangerous for people with sensory needs, lack of access to or exposure to certain foods can be dangerous for people with dietary needs or allergies, and lack of public restroom access prevents barriers for all sorts of people with disabilities.

Educational systems that require students to learn in person, enforce strict attendance politics, and do not allow for late work or accommodations in learning styles and strategies set disabled students up to fail. The expectation that people perform certain kinds of work—in-person, eight or nine consecutive hours, five-day workweeks—presents barriers for disabled people to access professional spaces.

Even things like disabled communication—tone, body language, affect—are policed by an abled world that has strict requirements, including the expectations that disabled people perform hopeful optimism and not ask for too many accommodations.

MH: What are some examples of structural or systemic ableism that might surprise able-bodied people, but they really need to know?
  
SHM: Many things that are disability rights issues would surprise abled people. Accessible fashion is a disability rights issue. Product packaging is a disability rights issue. Storm response and snow removal are disability rights issues. Rising rent prices and inflation are disability rights issues. Supply chain issues are disability rights issues. Climate change is a disability rights issue.

The shift online during the early months of the pandemic provided disabled people access to many spaces for the very first time, allowing us opportunities to thrive. Now that many abled people wish to pretend the pandemic is over, access is vanishing once again. It was fine for abled people to utilize accommodations when everyone was at home, but now that able people feel more protected, they are being stripped away from disabled people who rely on them to participate with agency and dignity in the world.

MH: What would you say to people who insist the COVID-19 pandemic is over?
 
SFM: That their ableism is showing. And that their disabled friends, family, coworkers, and community are watching. Refusing to wear a mask because you are not concerned with COVID does not protect those around you, and by rushing back to a normal that excludes disabled people, you are demonstrating that you don’t believe disabled people deserve equal rights.

When educational settings, professional settings, community settings, and even medical settings do not require masks, they are actively discriminating against disabled people who rely on these protections to ensure their safe participation in society. The pandemic continues to disproportionately impact disabled people and insisting their choice is worth our lives is an act of eugenics.

I would also issue a warning. Numerous studies have shown that even mild COVID infection can lead to long-term disability. No one is prevented from illness or disability, and no one knows this better than the community so many Americans seem intent to ignore or eradicate. We are issuing a warning call and America would do well to heed.

MH: You work in higher education as a first-generation college student yourself. Some conservatives label professors as the “elite,” but what is your reality at a public college in Massachusetts?
 
SMF: I have the incredible privilege of working as a tenure track professor, an increasing rarity in higher education, as institutions are relying more on exploitative adjunct labor. Still, my income is nowhere near the six figures often touted as a talking point against the “elite.”

In fact, I earn less than several of my siblings who did not graduate high school but still forged successful careers for themselves. And while my course load and service expectations as a professor at a small teaching university are much greater than my counterparts at prestigious research universities, they are nothing compared to the tremendous burdens of my contingent colleagues.

Recent reporting suggests that roughly 75% of college classroom instructors are off the tenure track. Adjuncts around the country teach six, eight, 10, or more courses across many intuitions, sometimes driving across state lines, all while earning a small fraction of what a tenure-line professor earns, and a small proportion of what a roomful of students pay to take the course. Many work additional jobs bartending, driving for Lyft, or in retail.

MH: What do people outside of academia need to know and understand in terms of labor/workers’ rights in higher ed?

SFM: There is no security from semester to semester, so many do not know if they will have a job until weeks or sometimes days before a semester starts. Contingent faculty do not receive health insurance or benefits, and a recent report from the American Federation of Teachers revealed that nearly 25% of adjunct faculty members rely on public assistance, and 40% struggle to cover basic household expenses. In addition, contingent faculty do not receive technology or educational resources from their institutions, including offices in which to work or to meet with students, which impacts their ability to effectively teach.

Just as concerning is the predatory way many universities are now exploiting student labor. Students increasingly staff many positions on campus, working long inflexible hours for minimum wage that comes nowhere close to paying for the surging costs of a college degree or basic needs, and now a growing number of students are experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.

MH: Republicans are insistent that college campuses/professors are “indoctrinating” students into leftist/liberal ideas, especially via books. What’s your take on the reality of the situation? 

SFM: I teach creative writing workshops, where our class texts are student-produced. Students are free to write about the topics on their minds and hearts, and the class operates as a microcosm. The young people in my college courses write about mental health, a bleak job market, and the rising cost of education. They write about climate reform, gun reform, and medical reform. When afforded their right to free speech, they actively pursue the lines of inquiry that many in this country seek to silence.

MH: Why do you think conservatives are so obsessed with this narrative?

SFM: The obsession is fueled by a history of erasure and disenfranchisement that is becoming harder and harder to enforce as people galvanize and find new methods of communication and organization. Universities, at their core, are communities of young people pursuing dialogue and action as they seek to build their futures, so it is no wonder that they are increasingly being framed as the enemy.

We need to look no further than the recent midterm election where voters 18-25 turned out in droves to exercise their right to vote overwhelmingly against policies and politicians that do not reflect their values in order to see why those afraid of losing power are intent on casting doubt on these voting patterns.

MH: What do you think about the ongoing efforts by Republicans to ban and challenge books in public schools and libraries?
 
SFM: The focus on banning books is a way to anesthetize the current educational crisis—a national teacher shortage, mass school shootings, crumbling educational infrastructure, slashed budgets, and a growing cost of college that is so prohibitive that many students are not perusing higher education. It is a rehearsed talking point that conveniently removes responsibility for the attack on public education systems in the last few decades and that offers a seemingly simple solution so people can cry victory.

But this has little to do with education. This is about silence and erasure, about eradicating any story that would dare speak against the status quo, any marginalized voice that claims space on a white page, that rewrites the narratives of those in power to more accurately reflect a changing America.

But banning books will not ban identities. Marginalized storytellers are rich inventors who have always found ways to share our stories through hiding books beneath the floorboards, through oration, through tapestries and canvases, and now in online spaces, where we build community and inspire action so valuable the richest man in the world has tried—and will fail—to purchase our silence.
 

You can order Montgomery’s latest book here or here. And don’t forget to order it from your closest library if you’re able! It’s a great way to support both the writer and your local community. 
 

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