“Can I pet your dog?”
“How do you match your clothes?”
“How do you cook?”
“Do you see anything?”
“How long have you been blind?”
Heads turn and people flag me down to satisfy their curiosity about my guide dog, Toby, and about my blindness as we dash across campus from one meeting to the next. After enthusiastic conversation about Toby and awkward queries about my personal life, most folks babble about the amazing sight of a dog guiding an unsighted person through the world before they meander on their merry way.
What I am rarely asked during these sidewalk conversations is how I manage the day-to-day demands of teaching, researching, writing and publishing as a blind person. It used to perplex me that no one ever asked about this. Then I realized that no one knew to ask. It does not occur to people with able bodies and minds that not all bodies and minds are able or that some are disabled in ways that make doing the work of the academy akin to physical and mental gymnastics.
The question I most want to hear from curious observers is: What professional and personal costs did you (and other colleagues with disabilities) pay to demonstrate your worthiness in an ableist system that does not pause to consider that bodies function in multiple and varied ways?
It’s a question that’s also missing from a place where one might otherwise expect to hear it—in universities’ conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. In an era when DEI fuels strategic initiatives at many colleges and universities, I am painfully aware that most institutions remain entrenched in ableist practices, policies and attitudes, which call into question some of the DEI efforts they claim to prioritize.
I believe that most institutions genuinely desire to advance DEI initiatives in meaningful ways, even as they fall far short of their laudable goals. I keep a long list of suggestions for how DEI efforts can more intentionally attend to the needs of faculty and scholars with disabilities, but for now I offer one starting point for consideration. The disability movement has among its principles the idea and practice of “crip time,” a notion that has gained particular relevance and urgency—and applicability in the university setting—as the chaotic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered how more faculty and staff members experience and think about time. Such a disruption created opportunities, albeit unexpected and often unwanted, for reconsidering familiar schedules, policies and procedures.
The concept of crip time emerges from disabled experience and acknowledges that people with disabilities experience time and the demands of time differently from nondisabled persons. Crip time means that we may need to sleep more or longer, that it may take us longer to cook a meal, that it might take longer to get from point A to point B, or—most relevant to the academy—that it might take longer to write the book, that we may need to schedule meetings later in the day because that is when our bodies and minds are most functional, or that we may need additional time on our tenure clock because of health-related disruptions in our scholarly production.
The requirements for achieving promotion and tenure differ widely from institution to institution, but whether you teach at a top research university or a small liberal arts college (as I do), climbing the professorial ranks involves producing a body of scholarly and/or creative work in the confines of a prescribed and inflexible time frame. I achieved tenure and promotion to associate and full professor on the “typical” schedule, but I wish I had possessed the wisdom and courage to request to do it on crip time. More so, I wish my institution had crip time as an option, one that was freely available to me and to my colleagues.
Research is painstaking for most scholars, but the layers of tedium multiply when doing it without sight. For example, I cannot skim a book, chapter, page or paragraph to locate a quote or idea I want to incorporate into my writing; I cannot skim anything. I frequently need to “reread”—which for me means relisten to—an entire book or chapter before finding the passage I seek, turning a task that takes a few minutes for sighted folks into a daylong excursion. Additionally, using any type of technology as a blind person always involves adaptive systems that frequently do not interact well with university platforms and programs, meaning I lose hours or days to time spent figuring out how to integrate my adaptive software with programs that allow me to do my research.
More than once, I accidently deleted an entire article or paper because I unknowingly (remember, I cannot see) highlighted the entire text instead of just a sentence or paragraph. My most painful memory of this was in an airport on the way to a conference where I was finishing my conference paper. I sat at the gate and sobbed into the phone, asking the IT guy from my university how to retrieve the lost file. He quietly told me the paper was gone for good. I stayed up most of the night rewriting the presentation for the following day.
On their own, none of these examples seem so unusual or overwhelming, but the pressures of scholarly performance and production that are tied to a ticking tenure clock, coupled with a body that is not designed to function at the expected speed of academic time, leave emotional, physical and sometimes professional scars.
However, it’s not only disabled scholars who would benefit by bringing the theory and practice of crip time into colleges and universities and their DEI conversations. COVID made the kinds of phenomena disabled scholars experience—including burnout and exhaustion—common for nondisabled scholars, too, putting everyone on high alert to the realities that people with disabilities already knew: living with anxiety about health and physical/mental dis/abilities takes an immeasurable toll.
Crip time allows us to slow down and acknowledge that adhering to a rigid time frame can cause harm. In the early days of COVID, my faculty colleagues implemented a policy that gave junior faculty the option to delay their tenure applications by a year, recognizing that the distractions of suddenly pivoting to online teaching, becoming teacher and parent for school-age children, caring for sick friends and family members, and worrying about how to manage it all made it close to impossible to carve out space for research and writing.
What if the option for some flexibility with the tenure clock remained a permanent adjustment? What if we acknowledged that while some scholars are ready to submit a tenure dossier in six years, not everyone is, and that’s OK? Crip time insists that it is important—indeed, necessary—to recognize that there are legitimate reasons for slowing down a tenure clock. Doing so does not mean that someone is not an active and productive scholar; it simply means that scholarly production happens at a different pace. What are other policies that colleges and universities could amend for crip time?
For years I debated writing a piece describing how tedious research is for me. I found myself torn between a desire to let others know how remarkable it is that I publish anything because it is so hard and a desire to be perceived as just another relatively unremarkable scholar, doing what scholars do. I did not want to come across as whiny and self-pitying. It also felt risky to publish a piece offering “excuses” for why it takes me longer than my sighted colleagues to produce scholarly work before I was granted tenure. I needed to “prove” that I could jump through the hoops with the same timing as everyone else before exposing my vulnerabilities.
My own disability is apparent, but I spent years trying to hide how it influenced the pace of my scholarly output. Many scholars live with nonapparent disabilities, adding layers of complication to the decision to disclose (or not) their disability to their department chair or other supervisors. The 2019–20 Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, conducted by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), found that 5 percent of respondents reported having a diagnosed disability. Even more significant for higher education leaders to notice, the survey also revealed that people with nonapparent disabilities are much less likely to disclose their disability to their employers. While only one in 10 people with apparent disabilities (defined by COACHE as sensory and mobility disabilities) had not disclosed their disability to anyone on their campus, one in three people with nonapparent disabilities (defined by COACHE as learning impairment or mental health diagnosis) had not disclosed to anyone at their institution.
Now that I am at the pinnacle of professorial promotions, I wonder why it felt so important to “prove” that I could advance through the ranks in the standard time frame. More importantly, from my privileged status as a tenured full professor, I routinely ask myself what I can do to support junior colleagues navigating the same ableist system, and how can I launch meaningful change to dismantle the system. These days, when I cross campus, inevitably being stopped for conversations as Toby waits patiently by my side, I know that one concrete action I can take to show support and prompt such change is to advocate for crip time and to ensure that disabled scholars are represented in DEI initiatives. It’s a first and necessary step in inclusion. As we process the lessons of COVID, the time is right to consider crip time in the academy.