The Neglected Demographic: Faculty Members With Disabilities

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

JUNE 27, 2017

More than 25 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the situation for students with disabilities has vastly improved. Most colleges now have offices for disability-related accommodations, and students are using these services in exponential numbers: At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach, the cumulative demand for services offered by the Disability and Learning Resource Center grew over 800 percent between 2002 and 2015. Data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics show that about 11 percent of the undergraduates in postsecondary education in the United States have a disability. Faculty members are now required to include in their syllabuses statements about disability-related accommodations, and many colleges’ websites advertise their services for disabled students.

However, you have to look harder to find information on disabled faculty members. What percentage of higher-education faculty members are disabled? How are their requests for reasonable accommodation managed by colleges? How do disability and accommodation figure into tenure and promotion reviews?

There’s surprisingly little published on this subject. At the University of California at Berkeley, a recent Freedom of Information Act request indicated that of 1,522 full-time faculty members, 24 — roughly 1.5 percent — are disabled. The National Center for College Students With Disabilities estimates that 4 percent of all faculty members have disabilities. These numbers are discouraging, given that 22 percent of the general population has disabilities.

One of the biggest challenges for disabled faculty members is the process of making requests for accommodations. Few colleges have an accommodations officer who is trained to serve faculty members. At my college, for example, a faculty request for accommodations must first be made to the department chair, which means revealing confidential medical information to someone who probably has no training in how to interpret it — and who, as chair, will contribute to evaluating that person for tenure and promotion.

This approach compromises the integrity of the evaluation process, and might dissuade some faculty members who need, and deserve, reasonable accommodations from making such requests.

It’s time to rethink how colleges process faculty requests for disability accommodations. For starters, they need a dedicated administrator with appropriate professional training to support on-campus access and to advocate for access when they travel as part of their work.

Ideally, all access requests from faculty, staff, and students should be managed within a single office staffed by people with requisite training and experience. Colleges that want the best-qualified faculty members have to realize that these professors need access support that is commensurate with their professional work.Such accommodations can cost money, but by fostering the inclusion of faculty members with disabilities and providing the resources for them to focus on their academic work, the college benefits in at least three ways:

First, accommodations are not simply for the disabled person; they are for the community. The usual (legal) way of thinking is that ramps are for wheelchair users, sign-language interpreters are for deaf people, and readers are for the blind; however, if access is only “for” the disabled, it serves no social purpose. By meeting what is perceived to be an individual need, we limit our perception of the disabled person to that of a passive agent, as a receptacle for experience.

Many times I have had an interpreter arrive for an event and say something like, “I am here to interpret for Joseph Grigely.” In fact, the interpreter is there to facilitate communication for everyone. Access is a shared resource: When an institution considers whether a request for accommodation is an “undue hardship,” it needs to apportion the cost in relation to all who benefit from it — not just the disabled person.

People with disabilities contribute to diversity, just as other minorities do.

Second, disability is an affirming identity: People with disabilities contribute to diversity, just as other minorities do. Disability cannot be represented by token conferences and guest speakers during Disability Awareness Month; it must be a daily presence in classrooms, at faculty meetings, in student unions and dorms, and in gyms and art galleries. The disability community is a cross section of American society, and the layered identities of people with disabilities offer an important lesson in intersectionality.Legal debates about disability-related accommodations tend to divert our attention from the importance of disability as a powerful, yet consistently marginalized, cultural force and identity. At a recent round-table discussion at my college, students with disabilities lamented the lack of awareness about artists with disabilities when the subject turns to diversity in their art-history classes. “They talk about women artists, and queer artists, and minority artists, but they hardly ever talk about disabled artists,” one student said.

Third, students with disabilities need role models with disabilities. Professors who have spent years lobbying for their own access can be proud of what they accomplished, but it comes at a cost. As William Peace, a disabilities-studies scholar and paraplegic, told The Chronicle three years ago, “I spend a lot of time — hours and hours — advocating for myself.”

This may be one reason so few graduate students with disabilities pursue professional careers in academe: The task of having to advocate for yourself is a thankless professional obligation.

“Only when disabled faculty members are allowed to teach and research unencumbered by a need to advocate for access will students be able to see the possibilities of a career that extends beyond their disability.”
When I give talks on campuses, at conferences, and in museums, I often spend more time trying to arrange for adequate sign-language interpreting than I spend preparing my talk. Only when disabled faculty members are allowed to teach and research unencumbered by a need to advocate for access will students be able to see the possibilities of a career that extends beyond their disability.

An ideal approach would be for colleges to establish committees to investigate the needs of disabled faculty members, and from this discussion to create policies and procedures that reflect their experience. Guidance must come from the bottom up.

According to a 2011 study, only 65 percent of postsecondary institutions offer students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to provide input on accessibility during project planning, and only 64 percent conduct needs-assessment surveys pertaining to disability. These numbers show just how little institutions value the input of the people who know disability issues best — their own faculty members.

Joseph Grigely is a professor in the department of visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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