Academia is Irreparably Ableist

Do I even have the right to write this story? is a voice in my head today, as I think about what I need to be doing on a Sunday morning to prepare for Monday, as I read through all the emails (helpfully) suggesting I put together this or that event for the majors, as I feel guilt over how unfinished my to-do list is, how dirty my house is (to say nothing of my hair), how I owe this or that email/document/review to various colleagues, organizations, groups, students, and how I’m missing out on a bunch of desirable and exciting academic and professional opportunities because all of the above is simply too overwhelming.

Rationally, I can recognize that no person would be able to do all these things perfectly, on time, etc. But I also see what my colleagues *are* managing to do — write those emails, those articles, those books, apply for those fellowships, teach, maintain relationships, parent, talk on the phone, exercise every once in a while (or even regularly), and put on “outside” clothes most days. That image seems so out-of-reach for me.

I was not diagnosed with depression until graduate school, but I know I had by then lived with it for much of my life. (Had I been diagnosed and treated earlier, it is possible that I might not be living with it the way I am now.) I have also never asked for official “accommodations” for my depression in my school or workplace, but I think, if I were to start looking, my academic and professional history is actually full of them — missing major high school assignments and managing to pass anyway; missing college classes and managing to pass anyway; failing college classes and having them not count on my transcript (thank you, Oberlin, seriously); applying to “safe” graduate schools and getting in; in graduate school, failing some of my quals and getting to retake them; getting exactly one job interview and one job offer (which I accepted) at a mid-tier small liberal arts college I had never heard of (which is a really great school, of course, and where I now love working); and, most recently, getting tenure at that institution.

All these times when the world let me by with what I could do, even though I was not meeting “normal” academic expectations, one could see as accommodations; I survived, I managed to get through somehow. What’s worse, though, is that the times I *did* meet “basic” academic expectations (e.g., studying well for my quals, writing that one article, signing up for that one committee, writing that one report, teaching that one over-enrolled course), it was exhausting*! And everything else in my life tended to fall by the wayside in the process.

*What is exhaustion, though? Is it the other things in your life (friends, family, hygiene, health) going unattended because you don’t have the energy to keep those up *and* do the tasks you need/want to do? Is it the onset of physical illness while you are pursuing those goals? Is there some line between the experience of job-induced chronic sniffles and job-induced suicidal thoughts?


On a fundamental level, academia abhors laziness. Part of this is undoubtedly the need of academics to convince the non-academic world that they do in fact work just as hard as some die-caster or plumber in the rust belt. But part of this is the ideology of meritocracy that upholds education and the pursuit of knowledge: people who work harder will do better and learn more, those people will get good jobs, those people will write books and articles full of their good ideas, those people will get fellowships to learn and write more — because they have proven, through their success, that they are not lazy people.

If disability in the workplace is defined as “an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” and requires “reasonable accommodation” for the affected individual to perform “essential job functions,” the key word here is “essential:” how does one quantify or qualify what are the “essential job functions” of a professor? Is the “lazy” tenured professor who hasn’t changed their lectures in ten years, or hasn’t attended a conference in a decade, performing their “essential job functions” (with or without accommodation)? If not, why are they still employed? The specter of this “bare minimum,” imposter professor, when one wants to talk about fairness in the profession, establishes what might be the sine qua non of the job. This professor performing the essential job functions is limited to essential teaching, research, advising, institutional support. They do not get awards, they do not receive the laurels of their field, their CVs lie relatively fallow and they are not competitive candidates for anything.

The ideology of meritocracy in education and the pursuit of knowledge are antithetical to the bare minimum: people who do the bare minimum are supposed to be outstripped by those who work harder/more. The hard-working academics show, through their productivity and awards, what the dedication [of an able body] can achieve. And that success breeds more success. My claim, then, is that success in academia can never be an accessible option for those who require accommodations to perform “essential job functions.”

Maybe that’s okay. I can certainly respect that I have hard-working colleagues who genuinely love what they do, who are super-productive and thrive in their research and get all kinds of awards for their work; their life is probably also a struggle — they, like me, are working at or beyond their maximum energy capacity — but what they can do before burning out is, apparently, so much more than what I can do. Maybe they can hack those responsibilities in a way I’ll never be able to (or at least not without accommodations).

Here’s where I want to draw a distinction, though: academia conflates capacity with quality. The person with more publications and awards is assumed to have better ideas (because they were the hard-working learners, after all). The people with the sparse CVs or the people you’ve never heard of** are assumed not to have good ideas (otherwise, they would have been more successful, no?). But an academic who is struggling (with or without accommodations) to perform the “essential job functions” — their ideas, what they *might* be able to do given the opportunities, get thrown by the wayside.

** Don’t even get me started on the nepotism in my discipline.


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).

Success breeds success in academia. I’ll continue with my metaphor: stronger arms can carry more bags, and by displaying the image of having strong arms (read: having managed academic responsibilities well, having carried a few article-bags, having gotten tenure, chairing a committee, etc.), people start to offer you more bags. Which is awesome! — I think I have great ideas worth publishing, worth funding, and my well-established, hard-working academic colleagues continue to support the merit of these ideas.

But more bags are more bags. I might get offered the opportunity to write an article, but if my one good arm is already carrying three or four bags, where can I carry the new one? Or who’s going to help? So the article doesn’t get written, and my ideas don’t get out there. And when I apply for funding that might let me put down some of my everyday bags so I can carry the article-bag or the book-bag for a while, I have no history of being able to carry more than the bare minimum of bags, and my arms look too weak to waste a good bag on. And because of my different capacity for work, assumptions are made about its quality.


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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