“Please make an effort.” “It would mean a lot to me if you were there in person.” “Make every effort to be there in person.” These are a few examples of the ablest and shaming rhetoric I’ve heard lately on campus about using accommodations to attend meetings remotely. My colleagues and I who have accommodations to attend meetings remotely are regularly asked to “make an effort” to attend face-to-face. The implication is clear: if you use your accommodation, you are not making an effort.
Campus leaders routinely engage in ableism, framing accommodations as attempts to not put in effort. I was recently in a meeting in which a colleague showed a video; as it began without subtitles, an attendee asked, “Can you turn the subtitles on?” The colleague said, “Can you just make an effort?”
Or using accommodations is framed as ruining everyone else’s fun, as in this example: A colleague described an icebreaker they had planned for a meeting that involved attendees doing some silly activities with a tight time limit. I asked, “What if some folks have accommodations for anxiety? Wouldn’t this ice breaker cause anxiety?” My colleague argued that the icebreaker was just for fun. For me, being humiliated by having an anxiety attack in from of my peers is not my idea of fun.
When people do use their accommodations, the culture of shaming can show up in disgruntled whispers of colleagues who ask incredulously, “What’s their disability?!” or comment, “I wish I didn’t have to attend in person!” or “It’s inconvenient for me, too, but I manage it.” These whispers are encouraged when the leader begins the meeting by saying, “That you all for making the effort to be here,” implying that folks who aren’t there didn’t make an effort.
I’ve written before about the challenges of getting documentation of a disability so I can get accommodations and about why I don’t always ask for accommodations I am entitled to. The entire process of justifying accommodations is disempowering, humiliating, and time-consuming. Then, once a person goes through that process, they are shamed for using the accommodations.
On my campus, leaders regularly shame people who use their accommodations to attend meetings remotely instead of in person. Here are some examples of the shaming language I have heard lately:
What leaders say: “people are tired of remote meetings” or “staring at a screen is exhausting”
Translation: it’s your fault that people still have to attend remote meetings and be exhausted
But here’s the truth: many people dislike meetings whether they are remote or in person.
Here’s another truth: many people prefer remote meetings and are better able to engage when they can be home with their pets and/or children or in an environment they can control.
What leaders say: “I expect you to be there in person”
Translation: If you are not there in person, you are not meeting expectations. This echoes the language of evaluation in which people who are evaluated as doing their jobs poorly are rated “does not meet expectations.” Not meeting expectations is bad and shameful.
The truth: The expectations of leaders are often unreasonable and not grounded in the reality of workloads, bandwidths, and structural inequities.
What leaders say: “This is a reasonable expectation”
Translation: I have not done any research into this, but I strongly prefer in-person meetings and this is how we did things in the before-times and everyone was fine with it.
The truth: No, everyone was not actually fine with it. You didn’t ask or you weren’t listening or people didn’t feel empowered to speak up. Parents and other caregivers, people with disabilities and/or unreasonable workloads were not fine with it. I have never been fine with most in-person meetings, which are typically run badly and take me away from doing the meaningful work of teaching and research.
What leaders say: “The benefit of face-to-face meetings outweigh the convenience of attending from home via Zoom”
Translation: attending via Zoom is a mere convenience for people who are lazy, unmotivated, disengaged, and/or not prioritizing the important work that will happen at this meeting.
The truth: Accommodations are not about convenience, laziness, motivation, engagement, or priorities. Accommodations acknowledge differences in bodies and neurology. My glasses are technically an accommodation, not something I use because they are convenient or I am lazy. Glasses are commonplace enough that we don’t typically recognize them as an accommodation. Surely, a supervisor wouldn’t ban people from wearing glasses to a meeting. But if I ask for special lighting, I am likely to be told that there are others who will be bothered by that lighting. Why not let me attend remotely, then, so that I can control the lighting in my workspace without impacting others?
An anti-ableist alternative to all of these examples is to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all mode for meetings. We might even begin by evaluating whether a meeting we are planning is necessary. Once the specific purposes of the meeting are identified, a reasonable judgment can be made about whether the purposes will be undermined by remote attendance.
Any time a leader questions the legitimacy of an accommodation, they create a culture of ableism in which disability is seen as evidence that someone is “broken.”