Faculty with Disabilities, a Report

Let’s talk about faculty with disabilities: in fact, I’m ready to talk about mine. If you know me, you might be surprised, because my disability is invisible.  Chronic hand and arm pain slow me down on a regular basis,  although I can keep up with my “essential functions” by using adaptive technology and lots of laborious work-arounds.  A lot of time — time I’d prefer to have spent in research and writing — has been spent in doctor’s appointments, testing, physical therapy and rehab.  Nobody in the medical world is quite sure what went wrong, but it seems that some time in my forties, I  overloaded my central nervous system — or the part that communicates pain — most likely by spending too many hours at the computer.

A lot of my friends and acquaintances have similar problems. Some doctors call it  an “overload injury.”  I call it “second book syndrome.”

I’m incredibly lucky — I got hurt after I was tenured — so my career could absorb a slow down in “productivity,”  if we measure that by publications, while I figured out whether I could keep working and how.  I could, and did.  But not without a lot of struggle with technologies, insurance companies and my University employers.

new report by the AAUP on faculty with disabilities confirms a lot of my experience.  While universities increasingly devote enormous resources and expertise to supporting students with disabilities, disabled faculty get almost no systematic support.  There are no federal statistics on disabled faculty, and while universities must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, compliance is sometimes minimal and grudgingly negotiated, and always on a case by case basis.

I have heard stories of disabled faculty members having to buy their own office equipment and adaptive technologies. I had to research my own adaptations and find knowledgeable experts to help me with them — the U of I has no office dedicated to helping faculty with these occupational technology issues, although it has support programs for disabled students. Isn’t that peculiar at such a high-tech university?

My own experience with the University of Illinois’ Office of Equal Opportunity and Access was unfortunate. The staff member I was assigned to was a lawyer (not a social worker or an occupational rehab expert) who saw his job as “protecting the resources of the university,”  presumably from disabled faculty members like me. He had the power to  define and approve my needs for accommodation and adaptation.   Although I made clear that my injury was caused by excessive computer use, this administrator’s repeated suggestion was that I use the computer more in teaching and grading. He also wondered why I need to use the library so much. Could it be because I am a scholar?

No wonder faculty members avoid working with the OEOA.

And of course, as budget cuts hit the University in wave after wave, the definition of “reasonable accommodation” shrank, as by law it can. “Reasonable” is defined as what the employer can afford, not what might  best help the employee do her job.  Unless the employee vigorously pushes back, she may get no accommodation at all.

Read the AAUP’s report which is full of solid research and strong suggestions about how to form campus-level policies that treat disabled faculty in an equitable and “class-act” way.  And think about what difference an organized faculty with collective bargaining rights could make.  We could even push the ADA into the twenty-first century.

Susan Davis

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