I shrank down in my seat as my professor handed the tests back. I couldn’t remember a single question that was asked or any of my responses. My memory of the exam was a fog even though I had just taken it a week before. I knew that the grade I would receive, and the professor’s reaction to it, would shape my value as a student in this class and at this institution. When that moment arrived, she placed my test facedown in front of me, avoided eye contact and quickly moved down the row of students.
Watching me struggle to hold back tears as I peered at my failing grade, my professor asked me to come to her office. She didn’t tell me that I should have studied harder or that she was disappointed in me. Rather, she calmly asked me about some of the material on the test. As I recalled the material out loud, a warm smile crept onto her face. Then she showed me my test, thoughtfully and proudly pointing out each missed question that I had just verbally given her the correct answer to. We talked about how it seemed like I was always either at the top or the bottom of the class, and that this might have something to do with the way my brain worked. She then shared that her sister had similar issues. During the course of our conversation, I realized that this accomplished professor was highly familiar with someone who was like me. Such an understanding was enough to make me believe that I might be good enough for that college, too.
It was the first time I had a professor who demonstrated close familiarity with disability. As disability-identity scholars note, it’s rare for college professors to disclose their own disabilities. Peer-review processes can make it difficult to talk about researchers’ disabilities in journal articles, and the heavy weight placed on biased student evaluations in tenure-review processes discourages professors from outing their minority status to students.
A general stigma in college culture further disincentivizes professors from disclosing their disabilities. Even as colleges strive for more diversity, disability continues to be largely ignored as an identity group. Our group, as defined by our deficits, challenges the conceptions of merit that the academy was built on, and that doesn’t bode well in many higher education circles.
Research also has identified deeply engrained perceptions of normality that govern how universities operate. This privileging shows up across higher education, from admissions policies based on merit-based test scores and GPAs to emphasis on “rigorous” courses that rank students on bell curves. Through efforts like these, the academy continues to be ableist and to disadvantage people with various learning abilities and those in neurodiverse learning communities.
Colleges have worked to improve diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for most identity groups through targeted recruitment efforts, but they’ve made relatively small changes in practice and policy for students with disabilities. To fully include those students, institutions must reimagine their conceptions of merit. They must recognize the value in different types of abilities and ways of knowing that higher education has traditionally discounted.
Colleges must stop ignoring us, and that starts with encouraging professors to disclose their disabilities. How can we expect students to seek help from their learning assistance center without role models who demonstrate that people with accommodations can be smart? How can students who need expensive medical care plan for postcollege careers with mentors who don’t talk with them about health insurance? When professors disclose their disabilities, or are empathetic to those who have disabilities, they open up possibilities for further conversations. Those conversations are opportunities for transformation by redefining what success in the academy means for those who are conditionally accepted.
As many as 42 million Americans have a disability, and 96 percent of those disabilities are categorized as invisible. This category contains several types of disabilities, ranging from mental health and neurodiversity issues to diabetes and multiple sclerosis. While some of those conditions are more apparent than others, they all share the trait of generally not being obvious at first glance. That means that most people with disabilities face decisions about whether and when to disclose.
The invisible nature of many disabilities makes it difficult to tell how many disabled professors there really are. For example, a 2017 report found that 1.5 percent of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, reported having a disability. However, the authors of that report commented that they suspected the number was higher but that underreporting made it impossible to get an accurate estimate of the number of disabled professors. As long as college structures disincentivize disability disclosure, most faculty members will continue to hide their disabilities.
Finally, institutional policies and practices around disability disclosure within academe must change. At least three recommendations should be considered.
First, faculty service to their institutions by disabled professors should be prioritized in tenure-review processes. We know that institutional service falls disproportionately on women and minority faculty, and that this service is not valued highly in the tenure-review process. If we want disabled faculty working with disabled student groups, serving as faculty advisers and giving talks about their disabilities to classes, colleges must incentivize them to do so.
Second, academic journals should encourage disabled researchers to discuss the relationship of their disability to the scholarship they produce. Publication continues to be a major determining factor of a professor’s merit. For academe to take disability seriously as an identity, other faculty members need to know that disabled professors exist and how their disabilities inform their research.
Third, colleges need to re-evaluate how they prioritize student evaluations. Long-standing research shows that student evaluations are heavily biased against marginalized faculty. When professors disclose their disabilities to students, they expose their minority group status and may face consequences for it in the student evaluation process. Faculty need to know that their jobs are protected if this happens.
The need for more disability disclosure among current faculty does not excuse colleges from also needing to hire more disabled professors. Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, more disabled people have steadily claimed their rightful seats in higher education. Currently, around 20 percent of college students report having a disability, and that number is probably underestimated because of the students who don’t disclose. College faculty composition should change to reflect the growth in numbers of students with disabilities in higher education.
To fully embrace people with disabilities in higher education, faculty members with disabilities should know that they belong at their institutions. For that to happen, colleges need to encourage more openly disabled professors at the front of classrooms.