It all started the day I got my driver’s license and began driving to and from work at Princeton University. That made me pay attention to the noticeable emptiness of disability parking spots in the parking lot.
The same experience repeated itself when we moved to Princeton’s brand-new graduate student housing, where those spots were, once again, conspicuously empty. There were clearly spaces set aside for disabled students, postdocs and faculty members, but sadly, there were not nearly enough of those people on the campus to come close to filling them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 percent of adults in the United States are disabled. Historically, disability rights activists were part of the broader civil rights movement, and their efforts culminated in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. The ADA extended civil rights protections to people with disabilities, explicitly prohibiting disability-driven discrimination in all areas of public life, including employment, education and housing. Yet in 2015, only 35.9 percent of working-age disabled individuals were employed, compared to more than 76 percent for those without disabilities. Disabled individuals also earn significantly less, with their median annual income trailing those without a disability by $10,000.
The situation is more dire in higher education and other white-collar professions. When it comes to the availability of equal educational opportunities and reasonable accommodations for disabled students, academic institutions have, at best, a mixed record. And even though significant progress has been made in recent decades, it is still estimated that two-thirds of disabled college students never seek such accommodations due to bureaucratic hurdles or concerns about stigmatization.
No comprehensive statistics are available on the percentage of university faculty members nationwide who are disabled. At the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, only 1.5 percent of the full-time faculty identify as disabled, which could be due to either underreporting or underrepresentation. Either way, that does not reflect well on an institution that has been a champion of equality, tolerance and free speech.
We also have no reliable data on the hiring of disabled persons in white-collar professions. But the unemployment rate is 30 percent higher among disabled college graduates than those without disabilities.
We could partially attribute these trends to the supercompetitive nature of such professions, compounded by a lack of awareness about disability and concerns about the productivity of a prospective disabled employee. Those perceptions usually have no basis in reality, and even though individuals with certain disabilities might not be able to do some tasks, numerous studies have demonstrated that disabled people are in general as productive, if not more so, as those without disabilities.
In fact, several companies that have launched initiatives to enhance the recruitment of disabled employees have observed an increase in their productivity and bottom line. As Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, disability can indeed be a “desirable difficulty” in certain circumstances, resulting in an enhancement in productivity and innovation.
That is a notion that I, as a visually disabled person, can relate to at a deep personal level, as my own disability always drove me to work harder than my peers. In other words, I tried to excel in things that I could do in order to compensate for the things that I was incapable of doing because of my visual disability.
Furthermore, the life experiences and challenges of disabled people make them more suited to offer distinct intellectual perspectives and innovative solutions to different scientific and societal problems -- a dimension that is inevitably lost when they are excluded from positions of power, influence and intellectual activity.
In addition to these market-based arguments, promoting the presence of disabled people in the workplace in general -- and in white-collar professions in particular -- has a deep moral dimension. Blocking a considerable segment of the population from certain professions is neither fair nor moral, and it is akin to punishing them for a physical or mental condition that they have usually acquired through no fault of their own. In other words, discriminating against people with disabilities is not only a loss to society but also a moral failing of it.
Returning to my story, when I began applying for academic positions in my field of chemical engineering in 2013, I disclosed the visual disability I have had my entire life. Throughout my academic career, my disability had never impeded my pursuits. If anything, it made me try and work harder, bringing me all the way from a remote city in northwestern Iran to the finest institutions of higher education in the United Sates. But as I applied for faculty positions, the doors seemed closed.
Frustrated, I stopped disclosing my disability status on applications and immediately started getting calls and campus interviews. Even then, multiple colleagues advised me to conceal my visual disability in order to avoid hurting my chances of getting a job. Eventually, the interview process worked smoothly, and I received multiple job offers, landing a faculty position at Yale University.
After coming to Yale, I availed myself of the variety of resources available to people like myself. I was happy to learn that the university had created sufficient infrastructure to support faculty members with disabilities. The problem, however, was overcoming stigmatization and implicit biases, particularly during the hiring process, and making it to Yale -- or any other university -- as a faculty member in the first place.
The solution might, therefore, lie less in establishing new rules and regulations regarding the university’s hiring process concerning disabled faculty members and more in the outreach to and training of the faculty who are responsible for making hiring decisions. To ensure the success of such measures, disabled faculty like me must also be more proud, open and active in recruiting and retaining other disabled faculty members.
Disabled people are not longing for preferential treatment. What we want instead is a recognition and celebration of who we are and what we have achieved -- and a trust in our ability to contribute if given the opportunity. It’s not enough for universities to set aside parking spaces for faculty members with disabilities. They should also take meaningful steps to fill each of those spots.