Dancing around Disability Disclosure — Balancing Paternalism, Panic, and Pride on the Academic Job Market

By Katta Spiel

Small children sitting on a classroom floor as a teacher reads a book
photo by CDC on Unsplash

In 2016, I attended a major conference in my field for the first time. I was early in my PhD studies and while I was involved in founding a group advocating for self-representation of chronically ill and disabled academics, I was somewhat shy to disclose my own discussions with my immediate colleagues within the field. The conference held a so-called ‘Diversity and Inclusion Lunch’. I was trying to figure out how the field worked and who was important and how to do conferencing at all to pay much attention to the speakers, until Jennifer Rode was called to the podium and started talking about her personal struggles on the academic job market as a disabled academic. Poignantly, she delineated how well-meaning reference letters and unwanted disclosure had effects on her landing a placement in an already cut-throat competitive environment. I considered myself warned.

In many western contexts including the United States, discrimination on the basis of disability is legally prohibited. Even though, disabled people face a general employment gap as well as a specific one with roughly 4% of university staff being disabled, whereas 16% of adults in the potential workforce and 13% of undergraduate students are. At my own institution, I only know of non-academic disabled staff and given how they are sometimes talked to and about, I refrained from officially disclosing my own disability so far. Additionally, cases of blatant exclusionary strategies through the demarcation of unnecessary job requirements indicate underlying issues with academic ableism — and with COVID-19 likely changing the fundamental make-up of the academic hiring landscape, the already cutthroat competition is only prone to exacerbate our exclusion. Should a disabled person then be so lucky as to sign a contract with an institution, they still have to manage existing barriers of everyday work life and are faced with epistemic violence.

Until earlier this year, I was still on the academic job market myself. I can now share some of the more problematic stories from the vantage point of relative stability and, yet, this text feels dangerous enough given that I implicitly need to call out close collaborators and friends to show how some of these barriers are systematically upheld, particularly via “good intentions”. It is also a layered text, with multiple addressees: colleagues of disabled people, administrative and academic staff in hiring committees as well as, to some extent, my disabled peers who might see their own experiences in my account.

For colleagues serving as references for candidates

One such barrier that I experienced personally, though, takes the shape of paternalism. As disabled people, we are continuously made felt as being inspirational for achieving daily tasks (which, granted, might be more difficult for us, depending on context and embodiment) and more so for academic achievement. To the abled world, we are not just brilliant, we are brilliant despite. Many academic job postings require reference letters attesting to an applicant’s personal and professional qualities; often written by close collaborators and former advisors. It is sometimes customary that applicants do not see these letters themselves. In one case, I later realised that a close confidant had revealed my disability in the best of intentions as a source of praise and admiration. However, I had not directly disclosed specific aspects of my disability myself due to fear of implicit bias. Learning that they had been communicated outside of my control, and regardless of my wishes, made me feel vulnerable and angry, also because I knew all the stats above and skirted the line of plausible deniability very consciously; as in: I had indicated disability in a way that people would already have to be interested in my work and person before encountering this aspect of self. What would have helped here is a frank conversation about disability beforehand, either solicited by me or my referee. In some cases, I applied to disability specific posts, where a different form of disclosure is relevant to illustrate situated knowledge. I had since written reference letters myself and always verified with the applicant if and how they would want aspects of their identity and/or disability disclosed.

For colleagues serving on search committees

Fundamentally anxiety inducing moments in hiring processes are a source of halting panic for me. During interviews, my conversational customs are idiosyncratic at best, further influenced by an upbringing in a non-academic household (more on the cross-cutting aspects of class here), a gender non-specific presentation, and internationally differing speech patterns and customs. Not surprisingly, this was stressful.

Even when I passed the reasonably formalised interview itself without an urgent need for a bathroom or accidentally bringing up the topic of disability myself, the required tours, dinners and lunches with members of the hiring committee and sometimes even other candidates were a social nightmare for me. This led to rejections due to ‘bad fit’ and the hiring of nominally less qualified candidates in more than one case. Hiring committees seem generally surprised about disabled candidates, particularly when they dare to frame aspects of their disability as an asset. What might help here is that hiring committees design their processes and interviews in ways that explicitly expect and welcome disabled candidates, e.g., by communicating access options, expectations and customs upfront. I’m not disgruntled here; I’m very happy about my current options and I am in all cases excited for the actual hires. I’m sharing these experiences and make recommendations, largely as a means to encourage academics to consider disability with a little more nuance and to avoid creating similar situations for my peers.

Apropos my peers: with all these difficulties, what gives me life and what has been a tremendous resource of pride and determination are the crip communities we make. We give each other mutual support and aid, where we can. We organise, advocate and create pockets of spaces in which we can dance — figuratively and literally. For example, Jennifer and I kept in contact, casually collaborated and advocate together for accessibility in our professional organisations. On a side note, she found a new home at the University College London where she keeps working towards more accessible environments in academia for all members of the institution. With the community, we share hardship, celebrate each other’s successes. We mourn together and we fight in solidarity for more equitable structures in academia.

Katta Spiel is a FWF Hertha-Firnberg scholar at the HCI Group of TU Wien (Vienna Technical University) and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Their research is centered around the critical participatory design and evaluation of playful technologies with a focus on marginalized people. Dr. Spiel is currently conducting a participatory design with people whose bodies are marginalised by technologies.

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