6 Ways to Dismantle Barriers for Disabled Faculty on Campus

-Stephanie Cawthon

This is a repost from Dr. Stephanie Cawthon’s blog, where she explores topics such as educational access, equity, attainment and deafness. ‘6 Ways to Dismantle Barriers for Disabled Faculty on Campus was originally posted on April 8, 2021, along with a downloadable infographic.

Infographic summarizing the 6 activities listed in the main text that can dismantle barriers for disabled faculty. Each action is presented in a different color with pared down representative drawings.

As higher education strives to be more inclusive and open to all, historical barriers are being dismantled. Yet these efforts often overlook a key group: disabled faculty. 

Faculty are an essential part of any campus. Expectations for their work are high — develop and teach courses, advise and mentor students, and serve their institutions and fields of study. Doing this well provides a critical foundation for students to prosper and grow, but it is a demanding, dynamic, and complex juggling act — especially if you factor in disabilities that are frequently unconsidered, unacknowledged, and unaccommodated. 

I have participated in committees that discuss campus accessibility, often as the only disabled faculty member. There’s a lot of work to be done. Here are six ways to get started and support disabled faculty on your campus.

Assume faculty do not disclose their disabilities

Many students do not disclose their disabilities when they arrive at college and neither do most faculty, attempting to avoid the persistent negative stigmas against people with disabilities. Faculty who face high stakes decisions for tenure and promotion have even less incentive to disclose. 

Disability is also variable and needs may change. Some physical and mental health conditions are sudden, while some are progressive and may change over time.

Recognize ableism exists on your campus (and work to eliminate it)

Disabled people face discrimination and oppression both in their professional lives and in society as a whole. Ableism — or attitudes and behavior that people without disabilities are more valued than those with disabilities — is embedded in our systems and in the design of our workforces, including academic institutions.

Disabled faculty experience marginalization and microaggressions on a daily basis on campus, including:

  • barriers in physical buildings and online classrooms.
  • lack of access at all university activities.
  • exclusion from disability accommodations and outreach.
  • negative assumptions about their contributions to academic life.

Even simple faculty meetings can be challenging and overwhelming for a disabled faculty member to navigate, especially if they are newly hired. 

Include disability in campus diversity efforts

Diversity and equity is at the center of efforts to reduce gaps in opportunity afforded to white, male faculty from high socioeconomic and elite backgrounds. Campus-wide initiatives are on the rise across the nation in an effort to respond to these systemic and historical inequities.

But disabled faculty are often not included in policy or practices geared to increasing diversity. Check the diversity mission statements at your institution. Is disability recognized as a part of campus diversity? Are disabled faculty represented in decision-making about improvements to campus and its climate?

Make it easy to request accommodations and encourage flexible work options

Disabled faculty often face significant institutional and attitude barriers when they disclose their disability and access needs. First and foremost, have a clear and centralized process to make accommodations requests (and have them paid for, so there is no budgetary haggling). This can also reduce the hassle and stress of advocating for access.

Also consider making flexible work options available to all faculty, reducing the need to make special requests based on disability status. As we have learned during the pandemic, flexibility and options that were never before accepted as part of regular workspace interactions are now what we use for everyone.

Ensure all aspects of their job are accessible

Faculty members have many roles within the campus community: teacher, advisor, researcher, committee member, supervisor, advocate. 

When thinking about accommodations, institutions often focus only on what is needed for formal instruction or when the faculty member is in class with students. Institutions instead must think holistically about accessibility — how to provide equal access to all of the social, cultural, and interpersonal aspects of campus life. At your college:

  • How do disabled faculty engage with students during office hours or colleagues during meetings? 
  • Are there captions on videos displayed around campus?
  • Are accessibility supports available for guest lectures and events? 
  • Can faculty members be included via video platforms if physically coming to campus isn’t possible? 

Lead with intention

A culture of access must come from the top. And it must come quickly. Each experience of ableism and inaccessibility is cumulative, resulting in a significant psychological and emotional toll. Disabled faculty are often tired and demoralized, and feel unwelcome in academia. This chronic marginalization can become itself a barrier, above and beyond the policies and behaviors of the institution.

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