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While universities have been taking long-overdue steps to address prejudice, harassment and discrimination against Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) faculty in the academy, one less recognized, insidious form of discrimination relates to disabled faculty members, who make up 4 percent of all faculty in the U.S.
Prejudice and discrimination against disabled faculty are underacknowledged and even dismissed because their manifestations derive from the academy’s deeply entrenched values about abled labor. According to scholar Jay Timothy Dolmage, academic ableism casts able-bodiedness and able-mindedness as normal, ideal and compulsory. By contrast, disability is configured as negative and disposable. Disability accommodations may help, but they don’t create equity for disabled faculty by themselves. Transformational change is needed to address these ensconced ideas.
Disability bias and discrimination in the academy work primarily through what I call a “regime of productivity,” a set of norms and practices that reinforce ableist ideas around academic labor and standards of “excellence” characterized by intense performance levels, an unceasing commitment to generating knowledge and disciplinary rigor. For all faculty members, these translate into competitive pressures for fast-paced, continual scholarly output and heavy workloads around teaching and service.
In the past decade, this regime of productivity has intensified, with the expected publication rate becoming unsustainable, giving rise to what philosophy professor Mitchell Aboulafia terms a “productivity syndrome.” In this cycle of more, the measure of merit and rigor is often the number of publications, of grants, of students in offered classes or of committees served.
These expectations fail to account for the complex temporal experiences of disabled faculty with body-mind differences. Because disabled faculty members’ body minds are always in flux, they may not be able to deliver the same volume of output in the same amount of time or follow the same normative ways of producing work as their able-bodied counterparts.
The normative ways academics use time and space undergird the regime of productivity and allow prejudicial judgments to be overlooked. Quantity connects to time insofar as the work to increase the number of articles, books, committees, students and so on requires even more time. Academics with or without disabilities are affected by these demands, but they affect faculty with disabilities in distinctly injurious ways because they ignore the supplemental obligations disabled faculty have to self-care and self-preservation. The need for faculty with disabilities to devise spatial or time strategies to account for body-mind differences to do work at all can be exponentially higher. Such invisible labor may take the form of dealing with bureaucracy to reassign where a class is held, scheduling a sign language interpreter for meetings, acquiring Braille books or appropriate software to write, or navigating inaccessible conference venues. Outside the workplace but impacting it, disabled faculty members manage voluminous insurance claims, attend numerous doctor’s appointments, do home therapies, acquire medications and rest. With ever-increasing academic demands, the labor required to juggle and prioritize disabled faculty members’ careers and health has become especially untenable.
Like the cultural taxation incurred by BIPOC and female faculty, disabled faculty members experience disability taxation—that is, added layers of labor that are wholly unrecognized and unremunerated. They are disproportionately asked to serve on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. They mentor disabled students and serve as representatives on disability-related service committees. This creates a disproportionate workload for disabled faculty in an environment that historically has seen those committees as less important or prestigious.
Disabled people’s relationship to normative time frames—“crip time”—demands flexibility and an understanding of unpredictability, according to scholar Margaret Price. Yet the regime of productivity assumes disabled faculty are unable to keep up or lack “grit”; they are presumed, in historical terms, to be inherently “handicapped in the race” for career success.
Regrettably, “falling short” of “typical” timelines often proves to detractors that disabled faculty can’t keep up with the rigors of academia. Such “proof” can serve to deny career advancement based on claims that candidates lack qualifications or competence, particularly when the latter is measured by numerical output. But these assertions, veiled in the language of upholding standards and maintaining the tenets of long-held criteria, are actually pretexts for disability discrimination.
The language around “maintaining standards” allows such discrimination to float right beneath the surface. As a result, administrators may not see these assertions as prejudicial and may treat a disabled faculty member’s grievances with resignation, hesitation or suspicion, leading disabled faculty members to feel that academia doesn’t care about disability equity and representation and never will.
Academic Trajectories and the Regime of Productivity
The regime of productivity and its ableist assumptions affect not only tenure and promotion but every stage of an academic’s trajectory, from the entrance into a field to retirement.
Disabled candidates have often found the promise of (relative) flexibility in an academic job attractive because it enables people to have more control over their daily schedule. But that flexibility is soon met with inflexibility relating to the pace of accomplishment. From job interviews to promotion, the academy’s assumptions around and enforcement of an ideal pace can inadvertently reinforce extreme representational tropes of the inspirational “supercrip” faculty member—or its tragic opposite.
That disabled faculty members often feel constantly behind is reinforced by messages they receive from colleagues about how long they take to publish or finish projects, the extra time they may take to come up for promotion, the “gaps” in their publication record, the minimal time they have to devote to socializing with colleagues and other ways they fail to reach standards within the same time period as their able-normative colleagues. These messages are experienced by disabled faculty members as microaggressions, much like those other marginalized faculty members encounter, but officials fail to notice these comments as disability-related harassment because they reference familiar expectations.
Trying to tackle the feeling of being “behind” sometimes forces disabled faculty to pull back from email, meetings or writing to try to catch up or do self-care. Although there are no formal studies about this issue, #AcademicTwitter, which gives voice to professors, postdoctoral scholars and Ph.D. students with disabilities, has exposed these strategies. Disability historian Aparna Nair, for instance, writes,
I just want to let people know: disabled/chronically ill academics will sometimes “disappear” because they need time to withdraw, recharge, heal, recover. Please don’t isolate them because they need to do this. Reach out to/include them. Don’t make assumptions.
In addition, former postdoc Tara Dennehy wrote, in 2021,
Right now I’m fighting to get medical leave so that I can focus on my health. Everything else is going to have to wait. But I really wish academics would reconsider how they define success and just how harmful current norms are to academics who are disabled and chronically ill.
Able-normative ideals about being a faculty member affect not only existing faculty but discourage a pipeline of disabled faculty into academic careers. Fear of disability stigmatization or devaluation often makes disabled faculty who are lucky enough to secure jobs fear disclosure. It can also keep faculty from seeking needed and rightful accommodations, which can lead them to work in injurious ways.
Re-Evaluating the Regime of Productivity
As authors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber argue, academics need to restructure our relationship with productivity, time and success. We need to realize that the regime of productivity is not working for disabled and abled faculty alike, but it has created additional inequities for disabled faculty, whether they have a visible disability or an invisible one and whether they choose to disclose their disability or not. We need to disabuse our loyalty to time-bound expectations around work and success.
Universities took steps towards this goal at the beginning of the COVID pandemic since all of us were faced with disability and death. But these steps have not been sustained since our society has called the pandemic over. To address disability discrimination meaningfully means not only upholding legal protections but also overturning unrealistic academic demands and replacing them with guidelines and values that recognize body-mind variations among us. Addressing disability bias and discrimination requires exploding the prevailing system of expectations and rewards and restructuring the academy’s fundamental principles and standards. It means creating equitable academic structures that recognize the labor and demands of disabled faculty, both within and outside university walls. It requires recognizing the different ways and paces of doing intellectual work rather than thinking of alternative modes as inferior. Further, inclusion rhetoric and policies must seriously consider disabled faculty members’ experiences and needs.
Fortunately, re-evaluating the regime of productivity will benefit not only disabled faculty but all faculty; it could make academia a much more humane place to work. Addressing academic ableism should force us to acknowledge the role of human difference in all our endeavors, promote academic generosity and uphold rigor and impact rather than pace and numbers of outputs.