Access in the Academy

Accommodating faculty members with disabilities can help everyone.
By Stephanie L. Kerschbaum

When Alex Lubet, professor of music at the University of Minnesota, returned to his job after surgery on his neck, he found that he fell between the cracks of the university’s disability-accommodation policies. As Peter Monaghan reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, although Lubet was “permanently partially disabled,” he discovered he was “not entitled to workplace accommodations.” Lubet was provided “adaptive office equipment” but not consulted about his needs. As a consequence, he could rarely use what was provided.

Lubet’s experience is not unique. In a recent issue of Academe, Stephanie Goodwin and Susanne Morgan point out that faculty members with chronic illness are likely to find current accommodation procedures unhelpful, both because they might choose to remain silent rather than risk the stigma of disclosing a disability and because accommodations often do not meet their needs.

Some of the gaps in current accommodation procedures result from the ambiguous language of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As other Academe contributors (Elaine Beretz in “Hidden Disability and an Academic Career” and Paul Grossman in “Making Accommodations: The Legal World of Students with Disabilities”) have pointed out, there is considerable legal and practical debate regarding how to define “disabled” and “reasonable accommodation.” Accommodating Faculty Members Who Have Disabilities, a recently published report by a subcommittee of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers some guidance in these areas while explicitly calling attention to the lack of clear procedures for accommodating faculty members with disabilities. Indeed, the report implicitly acknowledges that significant holes remain in current policies. Some faculty members are fearful of asking for accommodations because of the prejudice still associated with disability. But the biggest problem results from the way the term accommodation is both understood and approached.

To function as a truly inclusive workplace, one that values and welcomes disability, higher education needs to move beyond narrow legalism and adopt a new perspective that conceptualizes access as a social issue rather than as a set of specific solutions to individual problems. By welcoming disability into the academy while reconceiving access, institutions can address disability as an issue that permeates all aspects of the social and physical environments that comprise the university workplace. As disability scholar Robert Anderson acknowledges in “Faculty Members with Disabilities in Higher Education,” “There is a fine line between policies that fulfill legal mandates and proactive ones that generate access and connect people to each other.” Institutions and departments need to approach disability publicly and openly as a normal topic of conversation. They need to understand that disability is not an individual problem to be “taken care of” and that accommodation is not simply a matter of “retrofitting” individuals. Moving away from these perspectives and approaches can help create environments that are both physically and socially open to disability.

Talking Openly about Disability

In Contours of Ableism, disability theorist Fiona Kumari Campbell remarks that “compulsive passing” occurs in environments where “there is a failure to ask about difference, to imagine human be-ingness differently.” What does it mean to ask about difference in the context of faculty accommodations? It does not mean asking if someone has a disability. The AAUP’s recent report correctly notes that departments and institutions cannot query or diagnose disability in others, especially not as a way of explaining differences in performance or behavior. But that does not mean that difference is a topic to be avoided at all costs. We can talk about the differences in how people negotiate shared social space and how they are positioned within those spaces. We can talk about who is imagined as a participant in those spaces and who is not, and about how those imaginings matter for those who are present and absent.

It’s taken me a long time—and I’ve lived with my disability for thirty-five years now—to welcome attention to my deafness in many professional settings. While I still find certain kinds of attention undesirable, as when I am asked to represent how “deaf people feel” about any given topic, most of the time I appreciate that people are willing to consider how I might experience a group situation, a meeting, or a presentation differently. All sides can learn from understanding other points of view. Indeed, I have found that open discussion of my disability and of how I accommodate it in all aspects of my faculty life has led me as well as my colleagues to orient ourselves toward one another in new ways. My colleagues will ask how to work with an interpreter, or what that person next to me with the stenography machine and laptop is doing. I also learn from understanding how other people experience my accommodation requests. Some of them benefit from being able to share in the expanded access along with me. A recent conference I attended displayed open captioning for the entire meeting on a large screen near the main speakers: everyone could read it, not just me.

This is not to say that anyone’s individual disability should be considered a publicly available conversational topic all the time. Instead, disability should be a general topic that needs to be addressed as academics go about their careers. Having such conversations is one of the best ways to reduce the misperceptions and lack of awareness that persist around disability, both of which must be reversed if the academy is to cultivate an environment in which disability is truly welcome.

The Problem of the Retrofit

Within disability studies, the metaphor of the retrofit has been used to explain why it can be problematic to treat accommodation as something that follows an individual around. When retrofitting something—a building, a computer, a person—the existing structure, object, or individual is added on to or modified in order to accommodate the disability or the lack of access. Ramps are added to the sides of buildings or programs are installed that add functionality to a computer. But retrofits are always reactive, and they rarely account for the diversity of human experience. As sociologist Tanya Titchkosky puts it in The Question of Access, nobody knows who is going to come through the door: “It is impossible to answer definitively who public space is for, since it can never really be known who might show up—the excluded, the unimagined, or the unwelcomed do show up from time to time.” As a consequence, retrofits rarely succeed at conveying the message that disability is welcomed and valued as a part of the diversity of a department or workforce. If someone arrives on campus and has to spend a year requesting that the university install Braille nameplates next to faculty offices, she is not sent the message that she is part of that environment. And this is one of the most difficult messages to communicate: the difference between making a workspace broadly accessible and providing individual accommodation.

Because no department or institution can imagine or predict every single individual who will come to work for them or anticipate all the changes that will happen as faculty move through their careers, accommodation is often seen as something that happens only after an individual explicitly raises the topic of disability. Unfortunately, “when inclusive measures are perceived as necessarily following individual disabled people,” Titchkosky writes, “belonging takes shape as personal adjustment.” What’s more, those individual accommodations do nothing to change the culture of the university. When accommodation is treated in this way, disability in turn becomes, as Titchkosky puts it, a problem that is located within an individual and that has nothing to do with how social spaces are structured and organized. In such contexts, disclosing a disability means having to assume the identity of disability as individual problem. Thus, for faculty members with disabilities, the risks of asking for accommodation extend beyond embarrassment or shame. To ask for accommodation is to disclose one’s disability and potentially enter into a contentious negotiation in which one has to “prove” the worthiness of the accommodation and the limitations of one’s disability.

Instead of seeing accommodation as a way to “fix” an individual’s unique “problem” because he or she does not fit into the environment created by the department or institution, institutions can turn instead to principles of universal design in creating academic environments that are more broadly accessible. Two of the central tenets of universal design are important for broadening access for faculty members with disabilities: holding open multiple channels for communicating about access and being willing to revisit and revise how things are done. Adopting principles of universal design would help institutions and departments create and sustain accessible social and physical environments. For example, in reexamining the everyday spaces in which scholars move and interact, departments could consider requests for specially designed laboratory equipment, teaching stations that are wheelchair accessible, or voice-activated software in the same light as requests for support for research or conference travel. These considerations might also become part of the environment in a department prior to a specific request from a disabled faculty member.

Keeping Disability in Mind

One objection persistently leveled at various accommodations is that they are too expensive and that making particular changes “just for one person” is unreasonable. While the issue of money is indeed pressing, consider how many innovations first designed for people with disabilities have come to be widely accepted and used by all kinds of people, such as the telephone, e-mail, and curb cuts. Listed below are some inexpensive ways to reconceive academic environments and faculty workplaces with expanded access and universal design in mind. This list is not a set of prescriptions or a recipe for how to make one’s department accessible. Instead, it is a starting point for examining the spaces and environments where we work and considering which bodies are included and which are excluded or ignored.

  • Require name tags at department events and socials. Even if you know everyone in your department, there are often visitors at such events who may not. For some people, it can take many repeated encounters to remember another person’s name; for others, memory is visual rather than aural. In both cases, the name tag eases some of the social stress of the event.
  • Incorporate procedures for reinforcing names and seating locations at meetings. Any time there is a gathering of more than four people, have people announce their name before they speak.
  • Develop a system of “interaction badges” or visual cues for interactions at unscripted social events such as cocktail parties and icebreakers. For example, there could be a color for “I don’t feel up to initiating a conversation, but I would like others to initiate one with me” or one for “I’d like to meet someone from another department today.”
  • Whenever possible, include participant names (within an e-mail, on a screen, on the agenda sheet).
  • Share meeting agendas and relevant documents electronically, in formats that allow participants to fit the document to their preferences ahead of time (printing, enlarging, translating into Braille, sharing with a sign-language interpreter).
  • Display visual agendas or a list of topics and activities for any kind of meeting.
  • Include Braille nameplates—not just room numbers— outside of faculty, administrative, and staff offices.
  • At large gatherings and events, arrange for real-time captioning to be displayed visibly and prominently for the entire room, not just for specific individuals using the service.
  • Ask that speakers and presenters repeat questions before answering them during question-and-answer sessions.
  • Examine the spatial arrangements of meeting locations and consider other ways of organizing or rearranging that space—for example, to ensure adequate room for individuals with wheelchairs, to create clear sightlines to all participants, or to enable interpreters to move around the room to interpret small-group conversations.
  • Implement procedures for discussion that include different avenues for sharing feedback and opinions, such as having a venue for sharing comments by e-mail prior to or immediately after a meeting or including online components in some discussions.

These ideas for expanding access and accessibility in higher education are not meant to point toward any particular disability or individual. Rather, I mean to encourage richer consideration of and appreciation for the variety of ways that faculty work: researching, teaching, and, above all, learning with and from one another.

Stephanie L. Kerschbaum is assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses on writing studies, rhetoric of diversity and difference, and disability studies. Her e-mail address is [email protected].