Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Rough Accommodations

Full full 06092014 disclosure

Filing for psychiatric disability accommodations as a college faculty member is fraught for many reasons.

First, you are, even if just a little bit, exposing yourself as disabled, something that many faculty do not want to do for fear of stigma—especially the particular stigma that members of the academy experience. Second, faculty members are often discouraged (either latently or patently) from filing for accommodations for psychiatric disabilities, as writer Jacqui Shine has described. And third, campus disability offices are often designed with students in mind, not faculty.

(Before we go any further, I want to enter very big caveat: I know people who work in student disability support services all over this country. Many are doing amazing, I would go so far to say saintly, work. Period. Joseph Fisher, I’m looking at you.)

Here’s what happened, for example, when I tried to figure out how to file for disability support at my own institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One morning, I typed these words into Google: “UNC Disability Accommodations.” The very first webpage I saw seemed promising: “Accessibility Resources & Service,” with an easy-to-remember URL, http://accessibility.unc.edu. I clicked the link, but when I arrived at the pretty website, my heart sank. It was for an office of the university’s student-affairs division. “Fostering Student Learning and Success,” the tagline read, right across the top banner.

I’m not a student. I’m a professor.

The first sentence of the site’s Welcome page read, “Accessibility Resources & Service, an office within The Division of Student Affairs, works with colleagues throughout the University to ensure that the programs and facilities of the University are accessible to all students” (emphasis mine). As a faculty member looking to file for disability accommodations, that website did not seem to be the right place for me. But then I saw a link on the main menu titled “For Faculty.” Eager, I clicked it.

Disappointment again. The information on that particular page was about how faculty should interact with students with disabilities.

Next, I tried the search bar at the top of the “Accessibility Resources & Service” page. I typed these words: “Faculty with Disabilities.” No results.

I left the website and went back to Google. I typed a search with limiters: “UNC ‘faculty with disabilities.’” No hits. Not a single one.

I’m not a total newbie to academic employment. I figured my next step would be to call human resources on the phone and explain to the total stranger who would answer that I wish to file for disability accommodations. There would most likely be uncomfortable questions, such as, “What kind of disability? What kind of accommodations?” And those are questions that even I am not willing to discuss with a total stranger in HR right now.

I know there’s a way to find an answer to my question: How do faculty at my institution—or any institution—file for disability accommodations? It’s just seems much harder than it should be to find that answer.

While assistance to students with disabilities is front-and-center in university media—the glossy website, the search engine optimization via Google—assistance to faculty with disabilities is comparatively invisible. At least at my top-tier research university.

But let’s not rely on my n of 1. Let’s see how other faculty feel about filing for accommodations for their psychiatric disabilities at their institutions.

Joan: Soon to Be on the Job Market

Joan (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics about to graduate this spring, and she’s just now entering the job market. She also has multiple psychiatric disabilities. One in particular affects her sleep, making it difficult for her to teach early morning classes. She’s far less worried about finding a job—even in this market—than she is about finding a job that won’t make her sick.

For example, she told me, “I need to know that I can have a reasonable schedule before I take a job, because the cost (to my health) of a bad schedule is high.” But how can she possibly ask about class scheduling in an interview without bringing up her disability?

That’s the very question Joan asked me in an email that she sent after my last Vitae column on disability issues. She had no one else to turn to for advice, so she sought out mine.

She described how her field is particularly disabling: “Mathematics people are especially prone to an attitude that is fairly common in academia: that anyone who isn't a ‘morning person’ is lazy and can't possibly be good at his/her job.” This attitude arises in particular around course scheduling. In her field, she said, requests “to avoid early morning classes often trigger disapproval from people with this attitude.”

As a result of such negative reactions, she said: “Before my diagnosis, I spent several years feeling like a horrible, worthless person. ... And I am still afraid of encountering [this attitude] and being thought of as ‘less,’ simply because I don't bounce out of bed at 5 a.m., cheerful and ready to go.”

I’m not sure on what planet sleeping past 5 a.m. is considered lazy, but Joan is making a serious point here. The hostile judgment of her peers and superiors in the past has made her afraid to disclose her disability on the job market now, or to even ask questions of potential employers to see if jobs would be a good fit for her, given her disabilities.

So what is Joan supposed to do? “I don't want to take a job offer without asking enough questions about accommodations and then be miserable (or worse) because they can't give me what I need with respect to scheduling and facilities.” She added: “How do I make sure that a place I like can take care of me, without scaring them off with strange questions [before accepting an offer]?”

It is rare that there are safe structures in place to help a person like Joan navigate her department, the job market, or her new institution as a new faculty member. This lack of safe structures is a serious problem.

Sherry: Tenured and in a Top Administrative Position

Sherry (a pseudonym) is in a very different position than Joan, yet faces remarkably similar challenges when it comes to finding structural help with her psychiatric disability. She is an associate professor at a university, a university with multiple divisions. Recently, she took a 12-month, administrative post to lend more stability to her life. This post makes her visible across all divisions on campus.

About 15 years ago, Sherry was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treatment worked well, for the most part. Indeed, she told no one about her diagnosis, she said, “until after getting tenure, since the process of tenure landed me in the hospital and I had to tell my chair because it was in the middle of the semester.” More recently, she had a reaction to her medication and had to be hospitalized again. But despite these two manifestations of her disability, she lives what one might consider a normal life.

A couple of people in her department know about her disability, but because it can be kept invisible and is highly stigmatized in society, Sherry keeps it private. Her institution considers bipolar disorder a “protected condition,” but Sherry said she would never consider filing for disability accommodations even though filing could be a great benefit for her. “For example, if I had to be hospitalized for an extended period,” she said, “I could claim bipolar as a disability and get disability leave.” She believes the risks of seeking accommodations outweigh the benefits. Due to her administrative position, she’s “now more visible, and that visibility comes with a need to protect myself.”

After all, she tells me, “Who wants to publicly identify as [bipolar], especially in a high profile position? Not me.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

I am mostly public with my otherwise invisible disability but I would never consider filing for accommodations at my university (despite all of my Web searching). I know from people who have gone through the filing process across academe that it is too invasive and humiliating, and the rewards too paltry.

That is a structural problem that needs fixing. Here’s what we’re going to do about it.

First, since we’re academics and this is what we’re really good at, we’re going to study the problem. In 2013-14, a team of disability-studies researchers—including Stephanie Kerschbaum and Margaret Price—conducted an anonymous survey of faculty members with psychiatric disabilities. Over 400 academics in a variety of positions and from a variety of institutions took the survey. The team analyzed the results, focusing especially on faculty members' experiences disclosing their disabilities, and what barriers and supports existed for them if they sought accommodations. The team will soon publish their findings. A second phase of the study is now under way, led by Kerschbaum and Price.

Second, we’re going to talk about the problem. People like “Joan” are out there, right now, in your departments. They are your graduate students and untenured colleagues. They don’t know what to do. They’re emailing complete strangers (i.e., me) who write columns on the Internet asking for advice because they think they have no one else to turn to. I’m being serious right now: If you have advice that I can pass on to Joan, please send me an email. If I get enough good advice, I’ll compile it and write a blog post or another column to share with the world.

Third, and this is on each of you: We’re going to actively make academia a safer, more welcoming place to be a faculty member with psychiatric disabilities. We’ll stop making ableist insults, for example. We’ll learn why we have little to fear from our friends with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—despite what the National Rifle Association wants us to think.

That’s the only way to kill the fear and the self-doubt that transforms merely having a psychiatric disability into an epic sense of isolation.

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