Content Warning: This post contains discussion of common triggers, ableism on the part of the Oberlin administration and descriptions of media and conversations containing suicide, rape and parental abuse.
The first movie I had to watch for a literature class this semester contained, among other things, rape, suicide and physical and psychological abuse by a parent. I stopped watching somewhere around 40 minutes in, before the suicide, after everything else, and mentioned none of this in class. Neither did anyone else, setting aside any acknowledgement of these heavy and possibly triggering topics in favor of discussing whether a woman being a chef was sexist.
In theory, this didn’t have to be the case. Last semester, after one of my professors made a joke about child abuse in passing, I emailed Disability Services before the class had even ended and asked what accommodations they had in place for people in need of content warnings. The fact that the answer was “none” shouldn’t have surprised me at all; it’s been the answer to my questions often before. They said they’d think about it.
That alone is telling. This should have already been their business. Ignored as the fact is, content warnings are an issue of accessibility. They are an accommodation: a modification to the environment a disabled person interacts with, in order to attempt to put them on even footing with their abled peers. Not only that, but they’re trivially simple. I see no reason why they shouldn’t be as common as wheelchair ramps — although admittedly, ramps are nowhere near ubiquitous on campus either. This absence of accommodation stems from ignorance or cowardice from people unwilling to admit that their actions have consequences and their experiences are not universal.
Then there’s the solution I was offered, after that. It started, “Please think about exactly what would trigger your PTSD so we can articulate that well to faculty.” Upon handing in the resulting scrawled list, shaky penmanship and all, I got to watch someone transcribe it and send it to my professors. Verbatim. With my name attached. “Cyrus Eosphoros, a student in your class, requests warnings for…” (“We would like you to know everything Cyrus Eosphoros, a student in your class, hesitates even to tell close friends and family and await your judgment…”). Adding insult to injury, after that, the list was relevant enough that someone remembered to warn me just once. This is so jarring partly because the solution is trivially simple. For one thing, professors only relaying warnings to the single student who asked for them is a waste of effort. Why not at least give every person access to those warnings?
And what about a completely different system? Consider, for example, always offering warnings to all students for common triggers and allowing students to anonymously submit requests for other warnings as well.
This would offer students — individual adults with minds of their own — the option to make an informed decision about how they interact with the world around them. A few lines of text are utterly ignorable, for anyone who doesn’t want to know.
This shouldn’t have to be a question of luck and willingness to sacrifice, available only to people who can hand in paperwork attesting to their histories and then beg the administration to recognize it as proof. So this year, when I’ve already had to email professors copies of my medical records to get them to believe that I was in a hospital instead of a classroom, I’m opting not to give near-strangers anything more. I can’t find that in me again, to reveal all this to eight or ten people with power over me year after year at this College. They’ve already decided they have a right and an obligation to know everything that goes on with my body. If I have to choose —since I have to choose — between handing in a summary of the goriest parts of my autobiography or playing Russian roulette with triggering literature content until May, I’ll give up security for privacy, for liberty, for at least an ounce of dignity. And I’ll know, all the while, that it’s a sacrifice that could be avoided with a couple of keystrokes.