Fat Shaming at Commencement

What Will you DefendI often hear from people who don’t understand the many ways that fatphobia affects fat people every day – and on special days, as well as folks who don’t understand how these incidents increase the fatter we are.  I recently heard from reader Rene about a terrible experience that she and her mother had at her commencement (and that I’m sharing with her permission.)

To start with, Rene had to go to effort that she wouldn’t have had to do if she were thin or if her school’s graduation ceremony was accommodating to students of all sizes in the first place. So she started almost a month ahead of time:

From:   Rene
Date:   Wednesday, May 24, 2017  03:35 PM
To:   commencement@XXXXXX.edu
Subject:  Seating at commencement

Hello,

I’m registered with DRC for seating accommodations in my classes, and I’m wondering what steps I need to take to ensure that there is appropriate seating for me at commencement? Specific to the ceremony, my concerns are that I may need a stronger chair if folding chairs are used for graduates, and that if I’m seated in the middle of a row of students, I might need additional space between myself and the people next to me for everyone’s comfort. Please let me know what the next steps are.

Thank you,

Rene

The university responded:

From: <commence@XXXXX.edu>
Date: Jun 13, 2017 6:49 PM
Subject: RE:’=773-094′ Seating at commencement
To: Rene

Hi Rene,

We will have a bariatric chair available for you at [the site]. It will be placed on the side of the bowl near the bachelor SSW area. I will be instructing the line’s staff that you have requested that chair so that way they can move one of the regular chairs at the end of the row and replace it with your bariatric chair. Please remind the lines staff as it is close to your turn to sit down once entering the space.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Sounds easy enough, but sadly that’s not how it happened:

—–Original Message—–
From:   Rene
Date:   Monday, June 19, 2017  05:44 PM
To:   commencement@XXXXXX.edu
Subject:  Re: ‘=773-094’ Seating at commencement

Hello,

I wanted to follow up after the commencement ceremony. I was placed at the end of a row (separated from my BSW classmates), however no bariatric chair was provided, and the staff seating us seemed to have no idea that one was required or where it might be. As a result I spent an agonizing 3 hours perched on the edge of my seat, standing in the side aisle each time we were asked to stand. It’s extremely disappointing that after being assured that appropriate seating would be available, that it was not in fact present on the day of the ceremony.

I’d also like to bring to your attention that my mother was denied access to ADA seating in the audience when she arrived at [the site]. While she doesn’t appear disabled at first glance, having to climb a large number of stairs then sit in the poor seating in the “nosebleed” section was physically challenging for her.  I had specifically requested ADA seating when I picked up my tickets, and she is not comfortable advocating for herself when she’s denied services in public. I’m deeply disappointed that watching me walk caused my mother to be in physical pain for the rest of the day

I hope this feedback will help spark a discussion about how to better serve the disabled individuals graduating and supporting graduates.

Rene

The response that she received:

Hi Rene,

I apologize that these things did not go as planned. I will make sure to provide the feedback to [the site] about your mother’s situation. If your mom had the ADA tickets, she should have received the ADA seating.

For the bariatric chair we had it ready for you. We made several announcements in the Exhibition Hall where you lined up, to come and identify your self. It was loud in there so you might not have heard the announcement, but there was no other way to identify you. As you might have noticed there was also no way of knowing where you’d be sitting. I apologize that it didn’t happen and you had an unpleasant experience. We will think of another way in the future to connect with students prior to the ceremony.

And finally Rene’s beautiful response to this victim blaming nonsense:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Rene 
Date: Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 6:45 PM
Subject: Re: ‘=773-094’ Seating at commencement
To: commencement@XXXX.edu
Cc: <drc@XXXXX.edu>

Had I been instructed to listen for an announcement in the Exhibition Hall, I might have been able to connect with the staff there.  However, that was not the instruction I was given. I was told to alert the line staff when I was being seated.  Another way to handle this would be to have a station near the entrance where students with ADA accommodations can check in as they arrive…perhaps with a big sign since clearly announcements are completely futile in that space.

Please also consider that the tone of your reply regarding my seating is such that it places the blame on me for not being accommodated.  That’s a really problematic attitude, especially considering that a) the university was already aware of my seating needs well in advance of commencement and b) I specifically reached out to the commencement planning office several weeks in advance to ensure that my needs were communicated.  As a result of the failure of commencement staff, I was extremely uncomfortable at my graduation ceremony, and chose to leave early (after walking, but prior to the end of the ceremony). I’m struggling right now to express how frustrating this experience has been, and how angry I am regarding the response I’ve received.

I’m completing my master’s degree next June, and now I find myself questioning whether participating in commencement is worth my time and frustration. That should never be the case.  I’m looping the DRC in on this conversation, and I’m pasting in the last set of instructions I received from Natalie prior to commencement.  It’s absolutely unacceptable that this has been handled so poorly.

Rene

This is the world that fathpobia and ableism has wrought, and it sucks. I’m so glad that we have Rene to represent for fat community in Social Work!

Update from Rene!  “I’ve now heard from both the director of the DRC (disability resource center) and the person primarily responsible for commencement planning. They’re implementing my idea of an ADA check in station. The ceremonies will also be broken up so they’re smaller, and held in a different location. I’m just glad that I found a community of rad fatties and activism before I started back to school, and that as a non-traditional student I’m comfortable using my voice.”

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Published in: on July 10, 2017 at 8:20 am  Comments (7)  

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oh what an awful experience, especially for a milestone day that’s meant to be celebratory for someone and their family! But what a perfect series of responses. Rene is a phenomenal advocate!

  2. Rene is amazing, and her commencement folks are …let’s go with “not.”

  3. Why on earth would she need to identify herself? Because no one wanted to be bothered if she didn’t show up (to her *commencement*)?

    If they weren’t sure if it was a prank or something, a phone call could have set that straight. If it was that they didn’t want to provide a chair if she didn’t show up–why would that matter? One big chair, more or less? Who cares?

    And her poor mom! Chee!

  4. Nice job advocating for yourself and your mother, Rene! Sorry you had to go through that in the first place, but you make me proud with your words and efforts. You are a great example.

  5. Way to go, Rene! I’m sad that your commencement was spoiled, yet I am thrilled for all the people who will come after you, who will have it so much better, because you were strong and took a stand!

  6. So glad that she was able to get through to people and get changes made for future grads.

    So sorry her experience sucked.

  7. I also hope she continues to kick ass and take names.


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