Faculty Members, Accom­modation, and Access in Higher Education


Stephanie L. Kerschbaum

In January 2012 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a report titled Accommodating Faculty Members Who Have Disabilities, and in January 2013 the presidential theme of the MLA convention was Avenues of Access, calling attention to disability and access, broadly conceived, in higher education. These conversations are timely: we are twenty-three years past the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the people who grew up with the ADA at their backs are now becoming college professors and entering the professoriat in greater numbers. This collaborative essay extends these conversations about disability to consider issues of access and accommodation to academic scholarship.

The contributions to this essay that follow take the AAUP report as a point of departure, acknowledging its positive contribution in recognizing disabled faculty members while critiquing the stance on disability reflected in the text and urging proactive dialogues about disability and accommodation that build on, but also move past, the report. Throughout, we pay special attention to access and accommodation to the materials of scholarship and the work of scholarly production, from emerging technologies to academic conferences to library resources. We approach these issues holistically, believing that all aspects of life in academe infuse the development of scholarly knowledge.

The Changing Profession

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Accommodating disability in the workplace is an opportunity to define the essence of a job. The AAUP report states, “A faculty member who has a disability needs to accomplish the essential functions of his or her position, either with or without an accommodation” and “[a]‌rticulating essential functions provides a useful framework for professional responsibility and reduces for all faculty members the prospect of arbitrary charges of neglected duties or incompetence” (Accommodating 3, 4). What the report fails to recognize is that both essential job functions and accommodations are dynamic.

To illustrate this quality of change, I would like to bring forward a personal example, which involves pace—what Margaret Price below calls “crip time.” Producing text is an essential activity of my position as a literary scholar, but how I produce text and what kind I produce are complicated. The normative text-producing technology in the past was a typewriter, but, because my disability involves arm and finger reduction, a typewriter is an inflexible and exclusionary text-producing machine for me. To make words on paper, I required another person to do the typing. The personal computer was liberating because text producing is more flexible and forgiving on a PC than on a typewriter. Still, with the expansion of e‑mail, the amount of required text production increased tremendously in the 1990s. The pressure to produce more text at a more rapid pace increased as dealing with the volume of e‑mail and other kinds of electronic text became part of the requirements of being an academic.

Thus text production on a computer using a keyboard remained a job requirement. A keyboard is highly normative because it was created for a particular number of fingers and for the arm-and-hand configuration of most people. I could use a keyboard but not effectively or quickly. Fortunately, voice dictation technology came along at just the right time. Intended both as an assistive and universal technology, speech-to-text programs became a reasonable option for accommodation for me once they developed in accuracy and usability.

Although I can produce text quickly now, accuracy and navigation still slow my text production down, whether I use dictation software or the keyboard. My point is that the essential functions of my job shift constantly because of the requirements and the conditions of text production. The demands change, and the technology changes. Faculty members must consider the dynamic nature of disability, function, and technology as they “lead the effort to create fair descriptions of essential functions of faculty positions” (Accommodating 4).

On Including Disability

Sushil K. Oswal

Throughout, the AAUP report (Accommodating) assumes that, as long as administrators meet their legal obligations for accommodating the physical needs of disabled faculty members, the university has accorded an equal place to these people in university life. Such legally orchestrated inclusion is just not enough. Here I discuss some of the major exclusions in the report. It addresses the question of physical accommodations in some detail but is silent about the accessibility of the overall university infrastructure. Imagine that a blind job candidate gets hired. How will the library provide reasonable access to its digital and hard-copy holdings so that the faculty member can conduct research and avail herself or himself of the university’s vast teaching resources? Since all faculty members are bound by the same tenure-and-promotion guidelines, how will a blind faculty member produce research at the same rate and pace as sighted colleagues if access to the required research infrastructure is reasonable—reasonable in the legal, ADA sense of the word—but not equal to that of sighted peers? This blind faculty member will be assessed by the same student evaluation instruments used across campus, but will she or he have equal access to smart podiums and performance media that other faculty members use in their classrooms?

Although university infrastructures—both physical and digital—pose the greatest hurdles for the blind, the report mentions the blind or visually impaired only in passing. When discussing accommodations concretely, it overlooks altogether this group’s unique needs. As the Penn State agreement with the Department of Justice and the National Federation of the Blind informs us, all these university structures fall in the purview of the disability laws that govern the current accommodations regime (Settlement). But most academic institutions remain noncompliant in providing adequate access to these structures, structures that are essential for blind faculty members’ scholarly productivity and general survival in the twenty-first-century university.

The report excludes blind readers as audiences: the PDF version of the document employs fonts and spacing unsuitable for screen readers like JAWS for Windows. To the sighted eye the text in the PDF document appears quite legible, but to JAWS it is squished in various places because of the use of proportional spacing. Therefore the screen reader reads the text as long strings of babble instead of as distinct words and sentences. Even when the document was converted using the specialized PDF tool in Kurzweil 1000 for producing scholarly commentary, the screen reader could not recognize the entire text and misrecognized its font in many instances. Such exclusions are particularly troubling when one considers the intensified expectations of scholarly production and dissemination that result from the insertion of these very technologies in academic work.

Continuing the Conversation

Amy Vidali

While legal requirements set standards for accessibility and accommodation (standards that are often not met), they also foreclose other conversations crucial to including disabled faculty members. Legal requirements are best treated as minimum standards, and we can further conversations about including disabled faculty members by adapting campus initiatives focused on including other groups of faculty members who identify as diverse (e.g., people of color), where such initiatives exist.

When approaching the inclusion of disabled faculty members in our profession, the focus is often legal, as in the AAUP report (Accommodating). However, the idea that we would approach including or accommodating faculty members of color primarily by adhering to what is legally required seems absurd. One approach to including faculty members of color that might be adapted for disabled faculty members is presented in the final report from the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Tolerance.

This report notes that the committee sought to create inclusive environments for faculty members of color by examining the meaning of bigotry, exploring campus policies and diversity guidelines, networking with other groups, moving beyond tolerance and toward inclusion, and considering racially charged case studies in particular campus contexts. These strategies emphasize exploration and education and can be adapted to discussions of including disabled faculty members, for example, by examining the meaning of ableism, exploring scholarship on disability inclusion, networking with disability groups that exist in academe, and considering disability-focused case studies in higher education. The MLA committee report is not perfect: it primarily positions faculty members as seeking to resolve discrimination instead of being subject to it, and it claims to address disability but does not include it in the case studies. Still, although policies and strategies used to include faculty members of color do not easily map to disability, the methods used to generate discussion around inclusive environments can be usefully repurposed.

I understand why the AAUP report focuses on legal compliance: the existence of policy can enable conversations that might otherwise not happen. However, we cannot solely depend on legal standards to ensure the inclusion of disabled faculty members in the production and distribution of scholarly knowledge. Instead, we can continue conversations with and about disabled faculty members by drawing on—and complicating—what we already know about including diverse faculty members on campus.

Real-Time Barriers to Accommodation

Susan Ghiaciuc

In June 2007, I sat alone in a hospital gown listening to my doctor deliver my suspected diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. My initial flare-up was successfully treated with IV steroids, but it wasn’t until February 2008 that, at the urging of a trusted colleague, I officially disclosed my disability to my employer.

Following the ADA guidelines, which are now mirrored by the AAUP, I had to explain my illness and its expected duration to various members of the university community. I felt like an amateur actuary preparing a predictive model of my life to protect my employer against future loss. I filled out a functional limitation form, in which I described major life activities affected by my relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, specific limitations my condition placed on my ability to perform the “essential functions” of my job (Accommodating 3), and specific accommodations I was requesting. My neurologist had to provide confirmation of my diagnosis, and I needed an occupational therapist to independently validate my functional limitations. That this thorough burden of proof seemed legitimate didn’t make it feel any less stressful or intrusive.

Although after my diagnosis my schedule included lengthy trips to the neurologist and a regimen of medication, my life as an academic continued at a typically brisk pace. Yet I worried that the new disabled version of myself might be in the wrong profession. Nothing appeared different about me on the outside, but the time I spent holding down a 4-4 teaching load, serving on committees, and presenting at conferences—all while experiencing unpredictable symptoms and trying to come to terms with my illness—took a toll.

So in 2009, after the university lawyer told me that I could either ask for a tenure-clock extension and see what happened or gamble by not asking for it, I chose to apply for the extension. I was taking a considerable risk, since there was no precedent at the university for that kind of accommodation, but approximately two months later human resources and upper administration granted my request.

Even though my story has a happy ending and everyone at my university worked with me in good faith during my request for accommodation, 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. If this same requirement is faced by all academics with disabilities, many will continue to avoid disclosure, especially those whose disabilities are not evident to an observer and difficult to describe definitively. Such avoidance is a problem, because without disclosure there can be no impetus for the employer to provide accommodation.

Crip Time and Procedures for Accommodation

Margaret Price

Any policy attempting to address disability accommodation must demonstrate some understanding of crip time, a term from disability culture and theory that indicates the complex relation that many disabled people have with normative time frames (Kafer). Although commonly understood as a need for extra time, crip time is better understood as a need for flexibility and an acknowledgment of unpredictability with regard to time.

Here’s an example of what I mean by crip time. Imagine a junior faculty member on the tenure track whose research necessitates attendance at a couple of conferences a year. Unfortunately, virtually all meeting rooms in the conference centers or hotels are lit by compact fluorescent lights, which give him migraine headaches and put him at high risk for seizures. Although his university uses primarily natural light, most of the conferences he attends take place in fluorescent-lit spaces.

His request for accommodation might seem odd and rather convoluted. The whole story will sound something like this: He can attend a conference but only for a few hours at a time each day. If a session runs all day, he may be able to attend it, but then he won’t be able to attend any other session at the conference. He can attend all day and every day if the lighting is not fluorescent. His response to fluorescent lighting is unpredictable: on some days he will have a debilitating migraine after only forty-five minutes of exposure; on other days he might be able to tolerate hours of exposure with no trouble. He can never know ahead of time how much exposure will trigger a migraine or seizure.

According to the guidelines of the AAUP report, this faculty member should raise his access needs every time he attends a conference—but it is not entirely clear with whom such needs should be raised when the work involves being away from his university. Assuming he does locate the right person, he will have to explain that his disability is unpredictable and does not go by the clock. His difficulty attending conferences regularly will certainly impair his academic career and may lead to questions about whether he can fulfill those “essential functions” of his job. Curiously, the impairment itself is straightforward: he simply cannot tolerate a certain kind of light.

Note that in this example I chose a fairly value-neutral type of impairment—a seizure disorder. Imagine the conversations that might occur (especially behind his back) if his impairment involved a more stigmatizing condition, such as mental illness. Mental illness is common in academe (as it is in the general population) and is not usually linked to violence, behavior problems, or incompetence, despite its popular image. Yet faculty members with such a diagnosis, even when their conditions could be mitigated with accommodations, often avoid speaking up.

Disability and Linguistic Agency

Stephanie L. Kerschbaum

Representations of disability in the academy further frustrate faculty members’ willingness to speak up about their disability. The AAUP report’s descriptions of disabled faculty members and its references to acts of disaccommodation and disability discrimination erase agency at key moments for these people (Accommodating). The erasures promote an orientation to disability and accommodation as a problem of personal adjustment and ignore how human behaviors in social environments can be disabling.

In the report, agency is erased in three ways. First, disabled faculty members are not presented as agentive, except when they declare that they believe they have a disability. Second, abstract disabling conditions (e.g., illnesses or accidents) are the source of personal limitations and the impetus for all accommodations. Third, acts of disaccommodation and prejudice are not attributed to human agents but presented through passive constructions that mask individual actions.

Taken together, these erasures suggest that disability and agency are irreconcilable. Because the limitations that determine disability are seen as resulting from happenstance conditions, the report does not acknowledge that human agents make choices on a daily basis as they design environments and workplaces, choices that affect how people move in them. By abstracting actions to anonymous, faceless entities or processes, these erasures of agency imply that there is little or nothing that can be done to provide accommodation other than to retrofit people who have disabling conditions.

Let me give an example of such retrofitting. At one point, the report’s authors briefly mention how departments might make choices about accommodation. They first mention that “some accommodation requests might be inherently unreasonable” and offer examples, including “refusal to participate in department meetings.” They then suggest two ways that a department might accommodate such an unreasonable request: by allowing a faculty member to participate remotely or by excusing the person from participating in meetings altogether (Accommodating 7). These suggestions focus on what an individual faculty member could do differently (i.e., participate remotely or be absent) and fail to consider what the department could do differently.

This point is germane to many activities of our profession, such as attending academic conferences, that are essential for faculty success. As we are encouraged to expand our thinking about the work spaces and professional resources that we design, implement, and move in, instead of thinking of disability as a problem out there for other people to handle or suggesting that disabled faculty members ought to retire or otherwise leave (Titchkosky), we might reexamine how academic spaces are made accessible and inclusive.

Essential Functionaries

Jay Dolmage

A key mode of exclusion in the AAUP report comes in its major rhetorical move of introducing the idea of “essential functions” and defining them as those functions that “a faculty member who has a disability needs to accomplish . . . either with or without an accommodation” (Accommodating 3; emphasis added). This wording raises the possibility that the report could be used not as a means of creating “access and success” but rather as a sophisticated legal dodge (3). In other words, the report could be read to situate disability as a legal risk to be mitigated, or it could even be used as an excuse not to extend accommodations. To combat this possibility, the MLA should move in the other direction, defining not a baseline of essential functions but instead making space for the unexpected and extraordinary insights, interactions, embodiments, and cognitive and communicative styles that disability promises.

The specific language of the list of functions also clearly delimits a particular body and mind and as such is distinctly ableist. First of all, to expect “mental agility” is to import bodily ableism into the uncharted territory of mental gymnastics—likewise for “strong” communication (3). More important, there can be no reference to subjective concepts like mastery, agility, capacity, ethics, or even ability without their opposites. Ability is erected and protected through the labeling of disability. In this way, the creation of a list of essential functions will always, by the very logic at its heart, mark out a predetermined quotient of bodies and minds as less than, extreme, irrational, broken. A statement on disability cannot invent one ideal body and mind. The MLA needs to take this into account by acknowledging the inherent ableism of academic life, and it must create means of highlighting and eliminating institutional ableism rather than perpetuating it.

Finally, what we really need to talk about when we talk about lists is who does and does not get to make them and who does and does not get to enforce their criteria. The report’s legal focus, its quick reversion to telling horror stories about faculty members who clearly have asked for too much, its sly qualification of a legal accommodation process that was already austere through the insinuation of “essential functions,” its reinvocation of already ableist institutional norms—all these things reveal that this document is neither by people with disabilities nor for them. Any statement on disability must center on the perspectives and scholarship of people with disabilities and give them the driving roles in defining the future of disability in the academy.

Beyond the Overcoming Narrative

Craig A. Meyer

While attention to disabled faculty members in higher education should be welcomed, I argue that the AAUP report’s approach is itself disabling by framing disabled faculty members primarily through an “overcoming narrative” (Linton 18). The theme of overcoming is problematic because it suggests that disabled people should overcome their disability through hard work and extreme effort, ignoring the need for accommodation and cooperative efforts in the production and distribution of knowledge in our profession.

In the report, we see the prevalence of the overcoming narrative most prominently in the profiles of three disabled professors. Consider, for example, how the profile of Stephen Hawking focuses almost exclusively on his disability, not on his academic work or his university’s efforts at accommodation. In the report’s narrative, Hawking overcame his neurological disease by continuing his work, thus framing his success despite his disability. Such moves place the onus of responsibility for making accommodations and adjustments on disabled faculty members themselves.

The report, however, does take some important steps toward recognizing and acknowledging the importance of disability to the university. For example, while Kay Redfield Jamison and Temple Grandin, like Hawking, are framed through references to their disabilities, unlike Hawking they are shown as using their disability experience to inform their work. Indeed, the profile of Grandin emphasizes how she utilizes her disability to excel in and expand her field. It is because of her disability that she is able “to analyze an animal’s perspective differently from other experts” and consequently influence her field by “design[ing] half of the livestock-handling facilities in the United States” (Accommodating 2). In her case, the theme of overcoming is partly replaced with the notion that disability is an asset.

My point is that the report focuses on what faculty members must do to be considered equal instead of on what they are able to do. The result is that disabled faculty members are confined by and often must defend their disability instead of being free to utilize it.

Fast Roll Forward

Brenda Jo Brueggemann

I am a visual learner . . . stuck, but successful, in a very textual and print-oriented field. I get by with a little help from my friends. I understand the AAUP report as one of those friends. To be sure, this friend is very well-meaning, wanting eagerly, perhaps even desperately, to get it right and use all the proper disability etiquette. But this friend then also stumbles in those back-bending efforts.

Because I get by with a little help from my friends, I want this report to be my friend. And I want us (this report and I) to find ourselves mutually enriched by what can grow from that sustained—if sometimes also a little strained—relationship as we continue to develop our connection in the years to come. I hope to grow old in the academy (wait! I’m already doing that!) with this friend and its future incarnations. At the moment, the report is a bit stiff and solicitous, too polite and distancing, too clinical and chaste. But the report will loosen up once it gets to know me better; I’m sure of that.

As my colleagues have so smartly pointed out, the report, as it is currently written, 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. The report makes use (and rather inspirational use) of Temple Grandin, Stephen Hawking, and Kay Redfield Jamison as successful examples of “faculty members who have disabilities” (Accommodating 2) and who have been accommodated, but it does so because, quite simply, it doesn’t have many other examples to draw from. And the authors of the report don’t really have a good sense of their audience. They can’t yet parse out all the much-needed information about how people can disclose and not risk their jobs or tenure possibilities, to whom to turn with access or accommodation requests, how and what to identify as “essential functions” of a faculty position. They can’t do so because we (all of us) have to make the molds, create the models, and inspire the policy to a new level. Let me repeat that: all of us.

Together we must make, create, and model stories of successful avenues of access in the academy, and on our team should be those of us on crip time working to help those in normate tempo create syncopated rhythms, jazzy stories. This making and modeling is fraught with the narrative normalcy hazards of creating and becoming, yet again, inspirations. We don’t necessarily have to follow that beat. We are the drummers. Modeling and providing examples is but one measure away from inspiration, after all. A horror story can be a romance, if you just tell it the right way, and documentary can lean toward science fiction, to the future, both utopian and dystopian.


Ellen Samuels

When the AAUP report was released, I was pleased to see appended the guidelines for departmental search committees on disability and hiring (Disability) that I helped write during my tenure on the MLA Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession. I was also aware that although the report, like the guidelines, is a necessary first step toward meaningful inclusion of disabled faculty members, it is not nearly enough. As the authors of this essay insightfully and forcefully indicate, it is necessary not only to issue guidelines and reports but also to do the deeper work of promoting disability literacy throughout the academy.

I offer a brief anecdote to illustrate what I mean. On a recent visit to a university campus, I sent the usual messages in advance to explain my access needs, including a wheelchair-accessible taxi from the airport. Although I was assured that one would be provided, I was greeted instead by the regular campus shuttle, now sporting two drivers instead of one, helpfully prepared to lift me in and out of the van. Faced with this situation, I had two options: I could call my faculty host, pitch a fit, and insist that someone find me an accessible taxi, or I could smile and explain to the drivers how to lift my chair without hurting it or themselves. You may guess for yourselves which course of action I chose, and you may imagine how much more fraught and uncomfortable this choice would have been had I been a job candidate rather than an invited speaker.

The point of this anecdote is twofold. First, it demonstrates that the choices made by disabled faculty members, even in the simplest of matters, involve negotiating complex obstacles both physical and social. We must constantly weigh our access needs against the very real risk of being perceived as demanding and expensive troublemakers in a professional landscape shaped by expectations of gracious collegiality.

The second point is that the current state of disability accommodations in the academy not only places the onus on disabled faculty members, as the authors of this essay indicate, but also suffers from a profound and widespread lack of understanding of what access even looks like. That a request for a wheelchair-accessible taxi could be met by sending a van with a couple of guys, or that the report was issued in a form incompatible with screen-reader software, shows how wide the disability literacy gap can stretch.

Because of this gap, the report, a well-intentioned first step, still falls short of becoming a tool for effective change. As the authors of this essay suggest, any real change must begin with input from disabled faculty members, not as inspirational profiles but as expert witnesses on the state of disability in the academy today. I urge that this essay be read as the first installment of such expert testimony and that the authors, the MLA, and the AAUP work together to take the crucial next steps toward meaningful inclusion for disabled faculty members. Such steps must involve massive consciousness-raising about both the basics and the complexities of disability access.

Our next steps must also be informed by the principle of universal design, sorely lacking from the report, such that access is conceived not as attaching to a disabled person but to the broad physical, social, and intellectual environment of the university. Through this lens, accommodating disabilities is not merely a matter of legal obligation but also a means to expand the democratic potential of the academy at a time when forces internal and external threaten its contraction.

Works Cited

Accommodating Faculty Members Who Have Disabilities. American Association of University Professors. AAUP, Jan. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <>.

Disability and Hiring: Guidelines for Departmental Search Committees. Modern Language Association. MLA, 30 May 2013. Web. 28 July 2013. <>.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013. Print.

Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print.

MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Tolerance. “Final Report.” Profession (2005): 210–25. Print.

Settlement between Penn State University and National Federation of the Blind. AccessAbility: Accessibility and Usability at Penn State. Penn State U, n.d. Web. 28 July 2013. <>.

Titchkosky, Tanya. The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011. Print.

Stephanie L. Kerschbaum is assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, Newark.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is professor of women’s studies at Emory University.

Sushil K. Oswal is assistant professor of technical communication at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

Amy Vidali is assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Susan Ghiaciuc is associate professor in the School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication at James Madison University.

Margaret Price is associate professor of writing at Spelman College.

Jay Dolmage is associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo.

Craig A. Meyer is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English at Ohio University, Athens.

Brenda Jo Brueggemann is professor of English at the University of Louisville.

Ellen Samuels is assistant professor of gender and women’s studies and English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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