Most universities in the United States have an office for disability services. Usually, the main purpose of this office is to facilitate equitable access to education for students through “reasonable accommodation” on a case by case basis, as required by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As such, faculty members often interact with disability services on behalf of students, after receiving an accommodations letter from a disability services staff member.
But what about disabled faculty seeking accommodations? Most information about disability services in higher education focuses on students, disregarding faculty and staff. The Chronicle of Higher Education has even described disabled faculty as a “hidden demographic.”
Disabled faculty must navigate many of the same structural barriers to access as students in an ableist institution that frames disability as an individual responsibility. Below I explain some of the process’s key similarities and differences for students and faculty as well as my recommendation for everyone about navigating the process when accommodations are treated as simply adjustments to the status quo.
Similarities in student and faculty disability accommodations
No matter your position in a university, as disability studies scholar Nirmala Erevelles suggests, “‘coming out crip’ in inclusive education” is a struggle structured by institutionalized norms, including neoliberal and medical discourses that pathologize difference and thus conceive of disability as a problem.
In all cases, the person seeking disability-related accommodations must start the process by submitting disability documentation to the university. This initial requirement of disclosure is an example of what disability justice activist Mia Mingus calls “forced intimacy,” whereby “disabled people are expected to ‘strip down’ and ‘show all our cards’ metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive.” Furthermore, procuring documentation is itself an often inaccessible and traumatic ordeal because it requires a health professional’s assessment and signature.
Once the completed paperwork is submitted, the person’s request for accommodations is then determined by the university. The entire process can take months and there are no guarantees.
On most university campuses, accommodations are not retroactive and must be approved in advance of implementation. This means that the university’s individualized approach to access creates a counterproductive “accommodations loop,” a term coined by disability studies scholar Margaret Price to highlight how slow bureaucratic procedures further harm disabled people by delaying access.
Differences in student and faculty disability accommodations
Despite the similarities, student and faculty requests are reviewed, approved, and implemented very differently. When it comes to student disability accommodations for courses (e.g., extended time to complete exams), faculty members are in an administrative and thus authoritative position with the power to determine how they will implement (or not implement, as Project LETS underscores) requests that were previously reviewed and approved by the disability services office.
Because faculty members are university employees, our requests go to a disability accommodations manager in the human resources office instead of the disability services office. We are at the whim of evaluators whose job is managerial and concerned with our capacity to perform “essential job functions,” not with the reduction or removal of these functions (though leaves of absence may qualify as a form of accommodation).
For the university, faculty disability is reduced to a problem for productivity. Consequently, the purpose of “reasonable accommodation” revolves around making it possible for disabled faculty to continue working without making any structural changes to the workplace. As the coauthors of “Faculty Members, Accommodation, and Access in Higher Education” (written in response to an American Association of University Professorsreport) further explain, the focus is on implementing adjustments in compliance with the ADA, state laws, university policies, and collective bargaining agreements.
As disability studies scholar Therí Pickens emphasizes, “there are likely many more people with disabilities [and chronic illnesses] in the academy than people realize.” This is especially true for non-white faculty who are multiply marginalized through what Daniele Mireles calls “racist ableism” and made more acute in the context of the ongoing—and mass disabling—global COVID-19 pandemic.
Given that universities are fundamentally ableist institutions in an able-bodied supremacist world, it is critical to shift the focus from individual faculty disability accommodations to collective and institutional accountability, as disability justice activists have been advocating for society at large.
On the one hand, building solidarity amongst faculty and between faculty, students, and staff can lay the groundwork for creating support systems rooted in mutual care both for navigating the process as it stands now and organizing to change it. On the other hand, higher education should reject systems maintenance in favor of radicaltransformation rooted in the epistemological standpoint of, for example, disability justice principles, crip-of-color critique, and Black feminist disability studies.
As the growing scholarship on “academic ableism” stresses, challenges to ableism in higher education must be cultural and structural. It’s not just campus accommodation processes that need to change but also the inaccessible architecture, the performance-driven working and learning environment, the ableist and sanist assumptions underlying productivity, timelines, and curriculum, and the list goes on.
Most of all, we need to understand that systemic ableism is a problem for everyone, not just disabled people. Educational equity, then, cannot amount to “leveling the playing field” for disabled faculty and students.
Rather than adjusting the status quo on a case-by-case basis to create equal opportunity within an unjust system, we can center anti-oppression from interpersonal relationships to campus and system-wide campaigns. For example, in just the last few years, the University of California and California State University systems voted to drop standardized testing requirements for admission, making college much more accessible to diverse communities. Furthermore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting academic events online as well as online-first pedagogy have become more common practices in an effort to make events and classes accessible to immune-compromised people in particular, including faculty, students, staff, and community members. These are the kind of changes necessary to transform ableist institutions that frame disability as an individual responsibility.