My 5-Month Interlude as a Disabled Professor

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By Joe P. Dunn

A graduate-school friend who had cerebral palsy always spoke about "the presently able-bodied." His caution was that "the other" is minutes — an accident, an incident — away from his status. I have been a college professor for 48 years and I have enjoyed, with prideful arrogance, excellent physical fitness. But this spring I got a hint of my friend’s caveat.

Two herniated discs and spinal stenosis suddenly reshaped my world. Debilitating pain and the inability to walk for several months were my new normal. Fortunately, surgery and assiduous physical therapy restored me. But my five-mouth travail provided a glimpse of an unnerving alternative reality for me as a classroom teacher. It caused me to see with new eyes how even seemingly insignificant things can create major obstacles for disabled faculty members and students as they go about trying to teach and learn on a college campus.

Both my office and the classrooms where I’ve taught for years are on the third floor of an old building with no elevator. The increasing number of students with mobility issues routinely forces us to move courses assigned on this floor to other locations. Preplanning isn’t always possible. A last-minute enrollment or a blown-out knee at any point in the semester will require relocation of a course to allow student access. Female athletes are disproportionately susceptible to torn ACLs, and 27 percent of our undergraduates are female athletes. We have many women on crutches at any given time.

I have argued for an elevator for years, but until a capital campaign raises the money — at some point in the distant future, probably well past my time — it won’t happen. So this spring, after my health crisis, I got a new temporary office downstairs and moved my courses to classrooms there.

For five months I did not have ready accessibility to the books, notes, and artifacts housed in my regular office. My properly laid-out classroom on the third floor, with all the necessary maps and other tools that I employ in my teaching, was off the grid. My loyal student assistant, at cellphone beck and call, ran up and down many steps to bring what I needed. As department chair, I did not regularly see my colleagues in the third-floor office suite during those months.

I discovered every mobility impediment on the campus. My walker could not make it over rough cobblestone sidewalks. I went over the front of my walker twice, at painful peril. The handicapped parking spot had crevices and holes that inhibited my walker from moving once I exited my vehicle. It seemed no place on the campus was without at least a couple obstacles. My own home undermined me daily.

The college environment today is replete with more challenges than at any time in my 50-year tenure — physical health and learning disabilities of every kind, mental anguish, depression, not to mention financial, racial, cultural, gender, and family concerns.

I’ve always appreciated the plight of students in wheelchairs. But I shudder to remember my mindset earlier in my career when I was less sensitive to seemingly lesser obstacles. I admit to some grumpiness in the past about having to abandon my valued teaching space because of students whose levels of difficulty maneuvering stairs were due to things like obesity and poor physical conditioning. I have come a long way in my understanding of these issues.

In the classroom, little things suddenly became large obstacles for me. I’m a kinetic teacher — energy, movement, and enthusiasm are my modus operandi and reputation. Sitting in a chair just did not cut it for me, and even that became physically painful within minutes. I couldn’t bounce up to write something on the board or draw my impromptu diagrams.

Dealing with constant pain is debilitating, and even more so when it is compounded by sleep disruption. I was tired, even exhausted, all the time. While my course evaluations for the semester were outstanding, I worried that I was often incoherent. But as one of my students teased, "We were to tell the difference, how?"

I’ve always been a push-through-it kind of person. I was drafted to go to Vietnam, I cared for each of my dying parents, and I’ve never let adversity get in the way of my obligations. My classes and students come first. I was back to teaching within two weeks after my surgery and did not miss any instruction time since one of the weeks was spring break and I scheduled exams and guest speakers for the other week.

But all the willpower in the world cannot change a disability. My graduate-school friend possessed courage, willpower, drive, and intellect that makes mine paltry in comparison, but his career was undermined by the prejudice and fears of others.

We’ve made progress in the 50 years since my friend experienced the litany of rejections and failures to accommodate his needs. We still have a long way to go. Many of our students and colleagues live with some form of pain — physical, psychological, financial — some more overt than others. We need to recognize their dilemmas and stress.

Minimizing the obstacles that hamper their potential is not a secondary, auxiliary concern. Elevators are a first priority: My courses were a bit lesser outside their proper domain in my usual third-floor classroom. And students who cannot interact with their peers in the third-floor department space are denied an important aspect of their education. Likewise, ill-kept walkways and raised doorways are a hazard to students and faculty who are blind or have limited mobility.

As professors, there are simple things we need to be aware of as well. If you have blind students in the classroom, spell aloud any names or words written on the board. Students with hearing loss who read lips must see your face at all times. I had a deaf student who carried a stick and banged it on her chair when I turned away from her sight. She quickly trained me to be vigilant to my responsibility.

My teaching and my students got me through my own short-term disability. I always tell my students to treat their lives as worthy sagas of learning and remembrance. That is my intention here, and I hope that this rendering is not mere self-indulgence but might be useful for others.

My relatively brief interlude with disability taught this nearly 74-year-old some overdue lessons.

Joe P. Dunn is a professor and chair of history and politics at Converse College.

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