Don't Accommodate Me

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Mar 29, 2017

Mar 29, 2017 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

When I was teaching at a university—which I did for 12 years—I never considered seeking disability accommodations. (My disability is invisible, by the way—to those I've not disclosed to, my disability is imperceptible as a disability.)

Even though I have a disability that would be legally recognized, one that costs me a great sum of money to treat each year, and one that takes a great deal of effort to manage, I would never have considered reaching out to my institution's human resources department for accommodations.

Why not?

As I've written about before, colleges and universities seem far more inclined to serve students with disabilities than faculty and staff with disabilities. Part of this stems from the legal forces at play. Students and faculty are protected by different laws, which means that schools must comply with different legal pressures. Students are protected by a whole host of laws designed just for them. Faculty, on the other hand, are protected by different laws—the same laws that protect any other employee in any other job.

It's fine, of course, that the legal protections for disabled faculty and staff are the same as for any other disabled employee at any other job, except that—everywhere—these legal protections are generally poorly enforced and difficult to access.

Mere Compliance

Moreover, disabled people in academia (like disabled people in any profession) face profession-specific challenges. Our colleagues struggle to avoid ableism. Attending academic conferences is almost always a challenge. The particulars of the academic job market—the conferences, the campus interviews—are challenging for disabled faculty. Furthermore, an institution's compliance with disability employment law rarely ensures the eradication of these profession-specific challenges.

What does it mean when an institution states that they will “comply” with disability law? Think about what that word means. It means that they will do only what they must, and only because they are forced to. Compliance means that, really, they wish you wouldn't come to them and ask them to accommodate your needs as a person with a disability. It means that the onus is on you, the disabled person, to force an institution to comply.

Instead of requesting accommodations, I've spent my entire career forcing myself to do the accommodating, to fit myself around the parameters of my working conditions. And I'm hardly the only one. In a recent issue of Profession, the Modern Language Association's professional magazine, a group of disabled scholars reacted to the 2012 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report on disability, “Accommodating Faculty Members Who Have Disabilities.” For those interested in ways forward for faculty and staff on university campuses, the essays, titled “Faculty Members, Accommodation, and Access in Higher Education,” are a great place to start.

Privacy Invaded

Susan Ghiaciuc, a professor at James Madison University and contributor to the essay collection, described officially disclosing her multiple sclerosis to her employer. She writes that she “felt like an amateur actuary preparing a predictive model of my life to protect my employer against future loss.” She had to provide lots of private information, including doctor letters and more. “That this thorough burden of proof seemed legitimate didn't make it feel any less stressful or intrusive.” Indeed, she writes that “the documentation I was required to provide once I disclosed my disability made me feel that I was being forced to put my various symptoms on display for public examination.” Ghiaciuc argues that this hurdle will surely cause other academics to avoid disclosure.

The invasion of privacy Ghiaciuc describes is precisely why I never sought accommodations. I did not want my medical records in the hands of a revolving door of strangers in human resources. I did not want my diagnosis, my symptoms, my history, to become the property of my employer—especially when I knew, as both a lawyer and a veteran of academia, that no effective changes would be made.

Burden Misplaced

Brenda Jo Brueggemann, a professor at the University of Connecticut and another contributor to the essay collection, puts her finger on the problem: “[The AAUP report] overindividualizes (yet again) the person with a disability as the problem, the burden, the issue. Stigma, disclosure, risk, the academic environment—all these are missing from the document.” When the onus of righting disability wrongs in the workplace is on the disabled person, you have a problem.

This onus includes, for example, having to reveal highly personal medical information, as Ghiaciuc described—a process that everyone takes for granted as “just the way it is,” legally, and as a way to avoid fraud. This fear of fraud reveals a presumption about disabled people, including disabled students, that all ableds must confront: that disabled people are fakers and malingerers, or milking the system for handouts. And this fear of fraud has a terrible side-effect: rather than screening out fakers, it keeps out disabled people who are afraid to submit themselves to an inquisition.

When Brueggemann mentions “stigma,” “disclosure,” and “risk,” she takes on issues that attach to asking for disability accommodations, and how seeking accommodations, for some of us, seems like a really bad trade. In the context of higher education, giving up our privacy just might not be worth it. (Again, I'm writing from the privileged position of a person whose disability is invisible. Not all disabled people have the choice I had to not disclose.)

When Brueggemann talks about stigma, disclosure, and risk, she's talking about risking stigma by putting your disability at the center of your identity. You risk becoming no longer you in the eyes of others, but rather disabled-you. And for many in higher education, that risk is just too high.