Academia is Irreparably Ableist

Paradox of Academic Success, Disabilities

Depression feels like I have one useless arm — like if my colleagues are able to carry four bags (two in each arm), I’m able to carry three on my one working arm (most days). There’s always a feeling of ‘man, if only that limb were working I’d be able to carry four bags like everyone else’. My strategy thus far has been to carry the three job-related public-persona bags (like, getting dressed, performing “essential job functions,” maintaining collegiate relationships) and hide the dead limb so as to make it look like I have a perfectly functioning limb carrying the personal-life fourth bag (relationships, health, family) everyone else is also carrying (or at least pretending to).

What Could Inclusivity for Academics with Disabilities Look Like? Is Academia Irreparably Ableist?

Here are a few suggestions I could think of that might improve the situation and make academia a less ableist (or more actually meritocratic) environment.

  1. Differentiate between capacity and quality. The academic myth of meritocracy-as-documented-by-academic-success does nothing to make academic success more accessible to those who struggle with performing essential job functions because of their disability.
  2. (or 1a) Accept that academics with disabilities exist and have good ideas. Maybe this means having a self-disclosure option for scholars in professional contexts, or an affirmative-action-type policy in your journal’s editorial board or your funding board.
  3. Think about where your policies foreclose disabled access. Do your deadlines/guidelines/job advertisements get published last-minute, such that only the most-able-bodied academics will have access? Do you allow timeline negotiations for book/employment/fellowship contracts? Have you thought about what a “reasonable accommodation” might look like for graduate students, employees, colleagues? Whose accessibility do you think about when you choose a venue, a time slot, a visitor’s schedule, or job application requirements?
  4. Brainstorm accommodation options. If you accept that academics with disabilities exist and have good ideas, think about what you can offer to include their ideas in academic discourse: can you publicize/transcribe spoken lectures and host them on your website? Can you offer a few hours of work from a student or staff member (or a fellow colleague) to help those ideas get on paper and/or into a peer-reviewed context? Can you redefine “essential job functions” at your institution to include the pursuit of opportunities beyond teaching and institutional service and accommodate accordingly? Can you rethink what counts as a successful tenure packet for an academic with disabilities (e.g., rethinking the value of co-authored pieces, coming up with a “quality” rubric that takes different capacities into account)?
  5. Think about where you get your academic ideas/help, and cite those people. This comes from completely personal experience, but one of the ways I *can* do academic work without overwhelming myself is by helping others with their work and teaching (and I do it often, and usually in conversation). If I were Professor Super-Prolific-Scholar, you bet your tushy those conversations would get cited in the scholarship that gets produced as a result. But I’m not, and because I spent my time having those conversations (which I find deeply fulfilling) instead of struggling to read one more book or write a few more pages, the system says my ideas will never be citation-worthy.

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Lisl Walsh

Lisl Walsh

Associate Professor of Classics, also teaches Critical Identity Studies. Yoga enthusiast and instructor. Feminist. Uncertified neologician and portmantologist.