Image: Necessary Height, Norman Rockwell - Saturday Evening Post, June 16, 1917
Joe Stramondo, an assistant teaching professor of health administration at Drexel University, has dwarfism and uses a power wheelchair. When he teaches bioethics, Drexel provides him with wheelchair-accessible classrooms, adapter cables to hook his tablet to the room’s projector, and a table instead of a podium. He’s required to participate in commencement and convocation, so Drexel provided him with professional alteration of his regalia. When he was on the job market, he required similar reasonable accommodations and found institutions generally helpful. At one campus, the department chair personally drove candidates around, a fairly common use of transportation as a chance to get to know a candidate. Stramondo offered to arrange his own transportation, but the school rented a wheelchair-accessible minivan for the chair to drive.
Stramondo is a successful academic and clearly accommodating his needs is possible. However, over the past two months I’ve been tracking a broad class of faculty job ads that would have precluded him from even applying. Far too many faculty jobs — thanks to the use of boilerplate “physical requirement” clauses inserted by HR departments — list as “essential” such attributes as the ability to sit, stand, walk, hear, see (including close, near, and color vision), or even taste and smell.
When called on these ableist requirements, institutions quickly backpedaled and vowed to change their ways, but how did those requirements go unnoticed for so long? How many disabled academics have looked at job ads with such requirements and figured that they just weren’t wanted? How could HR departments, whose job it is to know better, so easily perpetuate discrimination?
Stephanie Kerschbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, describes herself as “profoundly deaf.” She wrote me: “I wear behind-the-ear hearing aids and depend on speech reading to understand spoken discourse. While I can understand one-on-one speech fairly well, it is nearly impossible to speech-read individuals in a sea of faces, whether in a classroom or any professional context. For that reason, I work with sign language interpreters.” When she teaches, she speaks orally, but relies on her interpreter to convey student responses.
Of course, a professor’s duties extend beyond the classroom, so the university provides an interpreter — or an appropriate alternative, such as real-time captioning — at committee meetings, at panels and lectures on campus, and in other contexts. “One principle that has been important is that the accommodations be paid for from a central source,” she said. “That is, departments should not be individually responsible for faculty accommodation, because this provides an obvious disincentive for hiring.”
Sometimes discrimination against the disabled takes the form of intentional, personal bias. But structural, unintentional discrimination can have powerfully negative consequences, too — especially when it comes to building a more diverse faculty. As an August 2015 column by Kelly Baker noted, the #ILookLikeAProfessor campaign “provides a vision of what academia could be: a diverse and welcoming space for all bodies.” Alas, as Baker discussed, the default — white, abled, male — still dominates our imaginations. Job ads with boilerplate physical requirements — demanding that an English professor be able to climb stairs, that an accounting professor be able to lift 25 pounds, or that a French professor be able to see —reveal how easy it is to forget that many academics are disabled.
Brian Kruse, who is blind, just retired as an adjunct professor of English at a number of Chicago-area institutions. He answered my email by speaking into his phone and letting it generate text. It worked just fine, helping him make the point that, “We have so much great technology at our disposal, that the needs a blind professor would have are fairly minimal. Technology could read the texts, help the professor find articles and handouts that would be relevant, and with most assignments being turned in online, professors would be able to grade assignments in real time.”
As an adjunct, unfortunately, he didn’t dare ask for such accommodations. Instead, he sought help from his wife, students, and the Blind Service Association in Chicago. Although there are many blind professors who do receive ample accommodations, as well they should, Kruse’s narrative demonstrates that a disabled professor can, in fact, be a functional member of a teaching faculty without undue expense or difficulty for the institution.
Disability does not always function like other forms of difference. Many people shift in and out of varying stages of disability throughout their life. It’s only recently that disability as identity — rather than as a medical problem — has become a broadly accepted concept in academic and activist communities alike. When an openly disabled individual is hired, the institution should be ready to accommodate, but the situation can be more complicated when accommodations become suddenly necessary for a longtime employee.
Heide Estes, a professor of English at Monmouth University, has asthma, but required no accommodations until her mid-40s. After a bout of atypical pneumonia, she said via email, “I started teaching mostly "hybrid" courses — half online, half face-to-face, meeting with students once a week. This reduced my time standing in front of a classroom and talking, which is, well, difficult if you can't breathe. I also had the further accommodation that I could take my classes fully online if necessary, for up to two weeks at a time and up to four weeks over the course of the semester.”
Teaching online, she said, “doesn't require as much lung capacity as projecting to the back of a classroom and could be done in short stints, allowing for rests as necessary, rather than in 80-minute or three-hour blocks of time.” Her asthma has improved, and she’s figured out ways to avoid triggering a relapse but, she added, “I'm not necessarily expecting that my health will remain particularly stable over the next couple of decades, and I'm assuming I'll need to work until at least 70 to be able to afford to retire, so I'll not be surprised if I turn out to need the accommodation again at some point in the future.”
Remote teaching, wheelchair accessibility, interpreters, screen readers — these are just some of the reasonable accommodations that make it possible for disabled faculty to be members of our profession. I also talked to academics with redesigned laboratories, desks, and shelving (and ladders) for people of shorter stature, accommodations for guide dogs, and countless more variations. The situations I’ve described here are not meant to be inclusive of all disabled professors, but suggestive of the range of possibilities. Obviously, those physical “requirements” in job ads weren’t required at all, and if you see an ad with such provisions in your field, either call it out or contact me on Twitter and I’ll do it.
Despite these positive stories, many disabled graduate students and faculty members still feel too vulnerable to push hard for accommodations. Moreover, while not discriminated against by HR clauses, as Katie Rose Guest Pryal has covered extensively for Vitae, people with non-apparent disabilities such as depression face all kinds of pressure and stigma. Autistic academics have told me that certain kinds of HR forms — the very mechanism by which we upload our CVs and writing samples —can prove particularly exhausting to negotiate.
As long as our common image of the professor remains white, male, straight, well-off, and abled, people outside that circle will encounter both structural and direct discrimination. It’s an image that’s increasingly inaccurate. Disabled academics — like academics from so many other diverse communities and claiming so many types of intersecting identities — are here. They're working hard. And when they receive institutional support, they’re thriving. Let's work on making that the new normal.
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