Applying, Guest post
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Literal Accessibility

Image: haru__q

There are six steps in front of my apartment building. They are made of marble and get slick when it rains or snows. I never forget that they are there. Before my car accident—before I became disabled—I didn’t pay too much attention to such things. Now I am always keenly aware of what lies ahead of me.

For someone whose thoughts should revolve around words, I am constantly thinking of numbers; I calculate the distance from A to Z, whether one flight of stairs will be less painful than a thousand steps to the elevator, whether I can afford a cab to go the five blocks because I’m especially achey that day. And, ever since I decided to apply to MFA programs, I’ve thought about learning my way a whole new campus.

Iowa’s program is located at Dey House, a two-story former residence converted for use by the Writers’ Workshop. On the Iowa website, it states that disabled students would only have access to the main floor. Columbia’s MFA program is held in Dodge Hall, a building whose ramp is constantly blocked by something or other; I know because I’m a Columbia undergrad and Dodge already frustrates me. I can’t tell you how many writing residencies can’t accommodate writers with disabilities or how many times I’ve been put off from applying because the idyllic scenery looks like a nightmare for someone who relies on a cane. Who decided that the ultimate writing experience happens in the middle of the woods? Was it Thoreau? Walden wasn’t even that good.

(Okay, it was good.)

I dwell on the physical accessibility of the writing community quite a bit, but it’s been on my mind constantly during this application season. What if I get into a program and need to turn it down, not because of funding, but because I can’t physically get to classes? What if I don’t find that out until after I accept and begin my first semester? When MFA applicants and veterans talk about accessibility, they are often referring to who is not being represented in programs or how people interact with literature. Those are both salient topics, ones that I myself am concerned with. But who is speaking up about the accessibility of the workshop? So much of my statement of purpose revolved around finding a space for someone like me—a queer person of colour—that I fear I didn’t argue enough for why spaces need to be created for the other part of me—a person with limited mobility.

There are a lot of questions in this post. In the end, no amount of research gave me the confidence I was seeking. I have decided to leave the first part of it to chance. If I get accepted to any of the programs I applied to, I will contact current students to ask about navigating campus in inclement weather; I will nag the hell out of the university’s office of disability services and advocate for myself; I will scrape together money to visit the campus so I can count my steps long before the first day of class. Sometimes taking a leap is the only thing you can do, even if you’re disabled.

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Jess Silfa graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Psychology. They are a native New Yorker who feels strongly about bagels. Jess is currently working on a short story collection that features a lot of dead pets for some reason. You can follow them on Twitter @jesilfa.


  1. This is a fabulous and thoughtful article. Like Jess, I’m also a disabled writer facing different kinds of access needs from an MFA program.

    The other topic that emerges when one is a disabled writer in workshop is the handling of disability by nondisabled writers. Too often, disability is appropriated for a metaphorical, spiritual, or otherise demeaning purpose. As disabled students still represent a very small fraction of college attendees, most of us have to be spokespeople. Let’s hope we can find communities of writers who respect our work and our identities within and beyond the workshop.


  2. Pingback: Accessibility and You (Yes, You) | The MFA Years

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