8 Things You Can Do to Make Your Workplace or Class More Accessible

Because disability is not stable, making a workplace or a classroom accessible is not a “one and done” endeavor. The concept of “accommodations” certainly implies that accessibility is about making one or two tweaks to an environment and then moving on, but that idea is based on an ableist idea of disability as stable.

Here are some specific actions you can take to make a workplace or classroom more accessible:

  1. Regularly give people the opportunity to tell you how you can make the workplace/classroom more accessible. Ask everyone, not just the folks you know are disabled. This is for a couple of reasons: first, people with disabilities may not have disclosed them to you for many reasons (I’ll write more about this at some point, but for now, you can check out this), and second, disability isn’t stable, so even if you’ve had this conversation before, the accommodations you may have in place may not be the ones a person needs now. People without disabilities also benefit from these regular conversations, as many of the so-called accommodations for disabled people actually make a space or experience more accessible for everyone. For example, although my hearing is fine, I often find subtitles helpful for when I space out for a moment during a film, my dogs are barking during a critical moment, or I am hearing an accent unfamiliar to me.  
  2. If you use a form for people to RSVP to events, include a question about what you can do to make the event accessible to the person RSVPing. Again, this will benefit everything attending. When I’ve asked this question, I’ve often received great ideas about how to improve the event that go way beyond accommodating for disability, such as ways to make introverts feel more comfortable speaking to the group—or even better, ways to respect introverts’ desire to not have to speak to the group.
  3. If you meet with students or employees individually on a regular basis, build into your meetings a question about what you can do to make the workplace or classroom more accessible to them. Again, this will benefit everyone, not just the folks with disabilities.
  4. When people do ask for an accommodation, don’t ask why they need it or if they really need it. Don’t ask if they’ve tried that thing you read about last week or the thing a friend of yours tried that was super helpful. Just do your best to offer the accommodation. If you can’t provide the accommodation yourself, reach out to HR or the disabilities services center for help.
  5. Don’t worry about the name of the disability being accommodated for. If someone says they need wide and clear walkways but they appear able-bodied to you, don’t worry about it. If someone says they need large print handouts but they appear to you to have normal vision, don’t worry about it. For one thing, no one is required to tell you what their disability is. For another, disabilities occur on a spectrum and your ideas about what a mobility challenge looks like may be based on faulty assumptions.
  6. If you think you can’t provide the accommodation, see if you actually can. For example, my students last semester asked for a break during our 75 minute class. I typically run out of time in my classes, so the idea of giving up even 5 minutes “to do nothing” felt impossible. But I tried it. And guess what? With the break, folks were more engaged and we got just as much done. Yes, people came back late from the break sometimes. It was messy. But you know what? It was messy without the break, too, only I didn’t know it because it wasn’t messy for me. But my goal as a teacher is to make things less messy for learners, not for me.
  7. Recognize that folks may have a hard time identifying what they need for accessibility. As I said in my last post, I found myself struggling to identify what my daughter needed most of the time she was in high school, regularly asking for what would have helped in the last situation rather than in the current situation. It can be helpful to adopt a spirit of problem-solving or trial-and-error.
  8.  Model identifying and asking for the support you need so that folks who don’t know how to do it can learn. Talk explicitly about how you have asked for changes to be made in workplaces or classrooms. This provides guidance for other folks and also normalizes asking for support. Whether or not you are disabled, you have probably at some point asked a boss, colleague, professor, or classmate to do something differently to make success more possible for you—talk about it. You might talk about how you asked someone to reschedule a meeting for a time when you are more alert, or how you requested that the IT department deviate from the standard issue software or laptop to make your computer better suited to you, or the time you suggested a different timeline for a project to avoid being stretched too thin.

All of these suggestions boil down to acknowledging that one-size-does-not-fit-all, inviting feedback, and then trying to act on the feedback. Ideally, you are a professor or workplace supervisor because you want people to succeed, so having these conversations about what folks need to attain success should align well already with what you’re doing.

Identifying Accommodations Is Harder than You Think

I’ve previously blogged about the access fatigue that comes along with asking for accommodations. Before you can even ask for accommodations, though, you need to know what to ask for, and that’s more difficult than it may seem.

With my low vision, for example, it may seem obvious that I need good lighting, but what exactly is good lighting? It’s not as simple as buying a good bright lamp. Most of the time, I need bright, preferably natural, light, with no shadows. But if my eyes have been working a lot, like if I’ve been reading or staring at a screen for several hours, that same light can hurt my eyes.

The lighting is part of what I need, but it is not, by itself, enough. I also need to be able to give my eyes frequent breaks and to limit the amount of work my eyes have to do in a day. “Work,” for my eyes, is anything that requires them to focus, including reading, using a computer, being in a remote meeting, and looking where I’m going when I am walking. Back when I was working on campus, if I had several meetings in different buildings, my eyes would be very tired by midday from me having to look where I was walking. When my eyes are tired, they don’t focus, making reading impossible.

I do not need large print to read, but I do need a serif font, and high contrast between the print and the background. Even with the right font and contrast, I often can’t tell the difference between the letters B, E, and the number 8; the letter Z and the number 2;  the letters F, K, P, R, and sometimes A; and the letters C, G, Q, O, and sometimes D. (Lowercase letters are equally confusing but in different ways. I recently realized that I had been misreading words spray-painted on a junction box I pass everyday while walking the dogs: I had misread “don’t make me dream alone” as “don’t make mr dream alone.” For over a year, I’ve wondered about who “mr” is and why he has to dream alone. I just realized my mistake earlier this week.)

What all of this means is that on a day when I have meetings in different buildings on campus, the light in my office that was perfect yesterday may be too bright today. Or reading for five hours may be doable one day but reading for even one hour on a day when I have multiple online meetings may not be possible. This fluctuation in what I need often makes asking for accommodations in advance of a situation difficult.

When students register with the disabilities services office, they need to state what accommodations they want from their professors. Without knowing the exact conditions they’ll be asked to work in, this can be challenging. Even if a student does know the exact conditions, their ability to function well under those conditions even with multiple accommodations may be impacted by other factors, such as what else they’ve done that day, how hydrated they are, the time of day, the weather, and more.

My daughter needed accommodations in high school, and despite extremely supportive teachers and staff, it felt like we were never requesting the right accommodations at the right time. She would find herself floundering in a particular situation, use the accommodations she was allowed, and continue floundering. After the situation was over, we would meet with her teachers to identify what would have helped. She would then ask for those new accommodations in the next situation, but still flounder because those accommodations were designed around the last situation, not the current one. We were always coming up with the accommodations that would have helped last time not next time.

I have a long-time employee in the Writing Center with a traumatic brain injury. She and I meet regularly to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. What worked in the past doesn’t always work in the present. For example, at times she’s needed to do most of her work early in the week, and at other times, she’s needed to do it only in the afternoons. We both have to be willing to tinker with existing processes, pilot new ones, and be uncomfortable. It’s frustrating for both of us, especially because we know that even when we find something that works, it’s only a temporary fix and there is no permanent one.

Despite that frustration, I think accepting that there is no permanent fix is what’s necessary because disabilities aren’t stable. Unfortunately, institutions, including academia, like stability. They assume stability works for everyone and when it doesn’t, that person is identified as the problem rather than the assumption of stability working for everyone being identified as the problem. The accommodations-for-disabilities system is premised on the ableist assumption that disability is a stable concept.  

Universal Design for Learning can help. Understanding disability as fluid can help. Identifying and pushing back against ableist assumptions can help.

Welcoming Folks with Disabilities versus Allowing Access to Folks with Disabilities

Last weekend, I had an experience that highlighted the difference between accommodating disability to comply with the law and designing for equity in accessibility. Now that we are both vaccinated, my husband and I belatedly celebrated our anniversary by spending a couple nights in a nice hotel and going out to eat in restaurants. Our experiences getting into those two restaurants couldn’t have been more different.

At one restaurant, I pushed his wheelchair up to the entrance and saw only a revolving door which was not wheelchair accessible. I also cannot imagine a person managing it with a cane, walker, or any other type of mobility assistance. I looked all around the entrance and didn’t see any kind of alternative entrance or sign. Finally, I left my husband in his wheelchair in front of the restaurant and went in to speak to a host. The host apologized and said someone would be out shortly to escort us to the accessible entrance. We waited a few minutes, and then the host came out and led us all the way around two sides of the very large building that the restaurant is part of to another entrance that requires a keycard, and then escorted us through the building to the restaurant. The trip around the building might have exhausted someone using a cane or hemi-walker, and with no way to get into the restaurant without assistance, someone alone would have had to knock on the window to get a host’s attention.

At the other end of the accessibility spectrum was our experience at a restaurant that at first seemed completely inaccessible. While we were able to get into the restaurant without a problem because of the wide double doors, from the host stand I could see that all the tables were down a half-flight of stairs from the entrance. We were amazed when the host showed us the open elevator lift just to the side of the stairs—not tucked away in a shadowy corner or down a long hallway, but right there, in view just like the stairs. We took that down to the level with the tables, where we were greeted by another staff member. We were further amazed when our server brought our food and asked my husband, “Is there anything I can do to make your meal more accessible to you?” (Shout out to Denver’s amazing Blue Agave Grill on the Sixteenth Street Mall!)

These two restaurant experiences illustrate the differences between designing to comply with the law and designing for access equity. Although the first restaurant did have a way for us to enter, it was complicated, time-consuming (for us and the employee who had to escort us), frustrating, and inconvenient. It was clear that my husband was not the guest they anticipated. Had we arrived during the dinner rush, I imagine the host would have had to decide whether they were going to seat able-bodied customers already in the restaurant or attend to getting the guy in the wheelchair outside into the restaurant and leaving the host stand unattended for ten minutes, potentially making the host feel resentful toward my husband for putting them in that position.

On the other hand, the second restaurant made us feel warmly welcomed. The placement of the elevator lift right next to the stairs meant that we didn’t have to travel further than any other customer to get to a table, and the fact that the lift was open meant that for once, we weren’t made to feel like using the accessibility option was something to hide or be embarrassed about. No staff member had to spend extra time to get us seated. When we stepped into the elevator lift, I said to my husband, “It’s like they were expecting us.” That kind of reception is rare for folks with disabilities.

I think it’s also important to note that at the second restaurant, folks who don’t need the elevator lift don’t lose anything by its presence. Ableism assumes that providing equitable access for disabled people means able-bodied folks lose something or that something unfair is happening, but the conveniently-placed elevator lift doesn’t deprive folks who can take the stairs of anything. I also want to point out the particularly cruel irony that at the first restaurant, only the people most likely to have limited mobility need to make the long trek around the building.

Academia (and most everything else) is designed like the first restaurant. My husband in his wheelchair can get into the buildings on campus, but it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. I, with my vision impairment, can get a $35 lamp for my office or a classroom with good lighting, but again, it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. A student can get extended time on tests or to work on assignments—if they have the proper documentation, and that documentation can be complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient, not to mention expensive, to get.

In architectural terms, the second restaurant is an example of Universal Design (UD). In teaching and learning, that type of integration of accessible elements is called Universal for Learning (UDL). When faculty implement UDL, the student with a disability that requires extended time on tests or to work on assignments wouldn’t need to get documentation of their disability and then explicitly ask for an accommodation; like the second restaurant, accessibility would be baked right into the assignments. Considering that one in four people has a disability, and that people with disabilities show up on campus as students, faculty, staff, and administrators, it would make sense for buildings to be designed according to UD and classes to be designed according to UDL.

The two different restaurant experiences also offer a great illustration of the social model of disability, which recognizes that disability is a fluid concept and that a person using a wheelchair, for example, may be able to get around just fine in a setting designed for them, but they become disabled when their setting is designed ONLY for folks who do not use wheelchairs. You can see the disabling function happening when you compare my husband’s entrances into the two restaurants: same person, same wheelchair, but at one restaurant, he had to put in significantly more time and effort to get in, whereas in the other restaurant, he sailed in and was seated quickly just like anyone else. He was the same person with the same capabilities in both scenarios—the restaurant designs account for the difference. My husband got around just as well as anyone else in the second restaurant but the first restaurant’s inaccessible entrance disabled him.

The social model of disability locates the problem in the setting that is designed to exclude people who are not able-bodied. Using the social model, we can see that if different design choices are made, a space can be made less disabling. The same concept can be applied to course design: if different design choices are made, a course can be less disabling. UDL is all about designing instruction to be less disabling.

Want to learn more about UDL?

  • CAST’s guidelines for UDL design (CAST stands for Center for Applied Special Technology, but they don’t actually ever use the full name anymore and are officially knows simply as CAST)
  • DO-IT’s explanation of Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), a closely related and somewhat overlapping concept (DO-IT is an acronym for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, an office at the University of Washington)
  • MSU Denver’s archive of weekly SIPs (Strong Instructional Practices)

Rethinking My Use of the Word Microaggression

I have used the term microaggression in the last few posts to describe behaviors that indirectly convey a person’s derogatory thoughts about disabled people, such as when I am asked by a colleague who noticed that my class was moved to a different room if I really need special lighting in my classrooms.

I was recently reminded that Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, does not use the term “microaggression.” He explains

I do not use “microaggression” anymore. I detest the post-racial platform that supported its sudden popularity. I detest its component parts—“micro” and “aggression.” A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term “abuse” because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide. What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse. And I call the zero-tolerance policies preventing and punishing these abusers what they are: antiracist. Only racists shy away from the R-word—racism is steeped in denial.

How to Be An Anti-Racist

I heard him talk today at “A Conversation with Professor Ibram X. Kendi on Being an Antiracist,” an event sponsored by MSU Denver’s Center for Multicultural Excellence and Inclusion, about this and he made the point that the concept of microaggression takes things in isolation, but the person they are directed at experiences them as cumulative. The impact of each microaggression is compounded by all the past microaggressions they have experienced.

I have been thinking about Kendi’s point about calling something what it is in relation to the access fatigue that Annika Konrad identifies and that I have talked about experiencing. When I am asked if I really need a classroom with different lighting, I don’t experience “a microaggression,” I experience

  • someone doubting my integrity
  • someone questioning whether I have fraudulently secured documentation of my disability
  • someone wondering if I am exploiting my disability to get special treatment
  • someone judging me as “causing trouble”
  • someone resenting me for making their job more difficult

I don’t experience some of these—I experience all of them at once. When the person doing these things is a colleague, which is often the case, I also experience being disrespected by a peer; even worse is when the person has authority over me, such as a department chair or dean. Although I understand the ableist assumptions underpinning the “microaggression” as being institutionalized and transcending the particular interaction, in the moment, it feels personal and I feel the weight of having to defend myself, my need for a classroom with different lighting, and the needs of all other disabled people on campus to be taken seriously.

Kendi’s elaboration in today’s conversation on his reasons for not using the term microaggression made me realize that I have used the term uncritically and that the people who benefit from that are the people who perpetrate the ableist abuse. I do find the term microaggression helpful because it is a convenient shorthand for a long list of problematic behaviors that are typically seen as so small that no one should be held accountable, but the term does not adequately convey the cumulative nature of the effect of each individual microaggression.

Moving forward, I am going to try to use terminology that more effectively articulates the effect of the behavior I am commenting on.  

Academic Ableism: The Expectation that Crips Be More Thankful

A few nights ago, I watched the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. The 2020 film follows some disabled teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a camp for disabled kids, together in the ‘70s as they grow up and become disabilities rights activists. Near the end of the film, disability rights activist Judy Heumann, who lost the use of her legs from polio when she was a toddler,  says, “I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. If I have to be thankful for an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”

That quotation captures the ableist assumption that disabled folks should be more thankful than nondisabled folks for exactly the same level of access. That is not equity. That is an ableist assumption that access for able-bodied folks is normal and should be expected and even taken for granted, while access for disabled folks is above-and-beyond and disabled folks should grovel in thanks on a regular basis. It ignores the fact that equal access is mandated by the law, but even more importantly, it obscures the truth that disabled folks are humans with the same rights, desires, hopes, and dreams as nondisabled folks.

I talked last week about my own access fatigue and how it contributes to my decision to sometimes not ask for accommodations. Another factor that contributes to my access fatigue is the expectation that I should be thankful for any accommodations I get. I am thankful—for the efforts of people like Heumann and other disability rights activists who fought to get people like me the same kind of access non-disabled folks take for granted. Do I need to also be more thankful for signs I can read than anyone else is for readable signs? Do I need to also be more thankful for presentation slides that use a high contrast color scheme than anyone else in the room is for being able to make out the words on the slides? Do I need to also be more thankful for well-marked curbs and steps than anyone else is for being able to travel around the campus without fear of tripping?

Judging by the attitudes of many people in academia, the answer to these questions is yes. Every semester, I hear faculty colleagues say things like, “I provided the accommodation to the student and didn’t even get a thank you.” These same colleagues don’t expect their able-bodied students to be thankful for desks or exams or films they can access, but they do expect their disabled students to be thankful for desks that they can navigate to in a wheelchair, exams with extended time allowed, and films with closed-captions. These faculty see students’ disabilities as a burden on them, the professors, that must be acknowledged and atoned for by the students. For accommodations that must be given repeatedly, like extended time on exams, those faculty expect to be thanked every time an exam is given. It wears a person down, this regularly expected participation in maintaining an ableist commonplace.

The fact is, most of the time my own students do thank me for providing accommodations, and I suspect this is because they’ve learned that if they don’t, accommodations will be harder to come by in the future. When students do thank me, I tell them that providing accommodations is literally the bare minimum a professor can do to comply with the law and I apologize to them that they feel the need to thank anyone for that. (In the article I mentioned last week, “Access Fatigue: The Rhetorical Work of Disability in Everyday Life,” Annika Konrad identifies as one of the themes in her data the emotional labor of having to regularly show appreciation for access.)

Access Fatigue: Why I Don’t Consistently Ask for Accommodations

I am deeply grateful to Annika Konrad for naming the exhaustion I feel whenever I have to explain to someone what I need in order to access a space or content or an activity: access fatigue. In her brilliant College English article, “Access Fatigue: The Rhetorical Work of Disability in Everyday Life,” she uses the term to describe the work disabled people must constantly do to educate others about their disabilities and needs, to enable others to feel helpful even when they are doing the very barest minimum to make something accessible and/or doing it very grouchily, and to balance the costs of asking for access with the benefits of actually getting it.

Here are just a few stories to illustrate why I feel access fatigue on my campus:

  • Even though I have filed all the proper paperwork with HR to be in an office with natural light, I had to fight for three years to get an office with natural light, and then, I was told that I was “stealing” that office from someone else.
  • In the years before I got the office with natural light, HR told me I could ask my department to buy me better lighting for my office. When I made that request, I was asked did I really need the special lighting, wasn’t it something I could purchase myself, and did I realize that it wasn’t HR paying for it but the department itself and the department budget was very tight? All this over a $35 lamp. Then I still had to fight for six months for the lamp to be ordered, and when it finally arrived, the person who brought it to my office slammed it down on my desk and said, “Here’s your special lamp.”
  • Despite that HR paperwork that is supposed to guarantee that I teach in well-lit classrooms, every semester, I have to fight to make it happen. Every semester and for every class. And because my disability isn’t apparent, nearly every semester I am asked whether I really need to have my classes moved. (Like I would go through this exhausting process if I didn’t have to?!)

Notice the theme? I had to fight for each accommodation, either for prolonged periods or over and over. Not once did the person hearing my request respond with, “Oh, I’d be happy to help.” Every one of them let me know in sometimes explicit ways and other times through microaggressions, that my request was a pain in their ass. These are the experiences of a white, tenured faculty member, so I can only imagine how much more exhausting it is for students who ask for accommodations from faculty, given the power imbalances.

My own experience of living with impaired vision is full of damned-if-I-do-and-damned-if-I-don’t moments. If I do mention it, because my disability is not apparent to most people, it can appear that I am “just looking for attention” or being “high maintenance.” I’ve been accused of “not trying hard enough to see,” of being “lazy,” of “just trying to make a point.” On the other hand, if I don’t mention it, I can find myself in awkward or even dangerous situations, like the time I ended up locked in a stairwell because the sign saying that the door would automatically lock behind me and there was no cell access in the stairwell was yellow text on a white background, or the many, many times I’ve been in meetings where I can’t read the presenter’s slides because there isn’t enough contrast.

Many conference venues, hotels, and office buildings indicate room numbers in some artistic way, such as engraving the number into a piece of metal or wood or using earth tones for both the number and the background. I appreciate that they are lovely, but the numbers are invisible to me. Many times, I’ve stood in front of a room and asked someone entering it what the room number is. I often get a very unhelpful response. People have said to me, “The number is right there,” pointing to the number but never actually telling me what it is. Or people will suggest in unkind ways that I haven’t tried looking: “Look around,” “try looking,” or “read the sign.” Then there are the people who pretend they didn’t hear me.

All of the responses I’ve noted, from being told I was “stealing” an office from someone else to the sarcastic replies to my question about a room number, reveal the ableist assumption that I am making unreasonable demands when I ask for accommodations. The responses are underpinned by a belief that there is nothing wrong with the poorly lit office or the low-contrast sign—that the problem is with me and I should just suck it up.

Sometimes people do respond kindly and wonderfully. After I fell down a flight of concrete steps on my campus because I didn’t see them and their edges weren’t marked in any way, I called our campus facilities office to ask them to mark the steps. The woman who answered the phone spent the first few minutes of our call making sure I wasn’t hurt badly and apologizing that the steps weren’t better marked. I’ve had complete strangers let me hold on to them while I walked down a street or sidewalk that wasn’t well lit at night. I have wonderful friends and family who point out steps, uneven pavement, and other low-contrast obstacles when we walk or hike together. My students are often much more conscientious than my colleagues, asking me before they do presentations if their slides have enough contrast or offering to reprint a paper that was printed at the end of an ink cartridge’s life.

Despite the generous responses I do sometimes get to my requests for accommodations, when I am feeling the least bit depleted, I often decide not to ask for what I need. Konrad notes in her article that “people with disabilities are often encouraged to advocate for their own access without consideration for the mental and emotional labor required to do so” (180). The toll of that mental and emotional labor adds up and my desire to avoid it often causes me to forgo an experience.

Many conference registration forms now ask if registrants will need accommodations. While I appreciate being asked, most of the time I don’t ask for any these days because what I really need—well-marked room numbers and bathrooms, for example, and presentation slides that are high contrast and with a large font—can’t be controlled by the conference organizers. When I have asked for slides to be high contrast and with a large font, as far as I can tell, my request was ignored. (Many presenters mumble something at the beginning of their presentations along the lines of, “I hope everyone can see this ok,” which is absolutely unhelpful—although not as unhelpful as saying, “I don’t need a microphone, I’ll just use my teacher voice.”) And that’s perhaps the most exhausting aspect of asking for accommodations: even more frustrating than having someone argue that I don’t really need the accommodation I’ve asked for or the suggestion that I’m not really trying to see is the ignoring of a request that was invited. While the initial invitation to ask for accommodations may come from a place of generosity, the ignoring of the request amounts to gaslighting. I find myself wondering when a request is ignored, Did I imagine making the request? Am I invisible? Am I wanted here?

Disability and Ableism in Academia: Whose Problem is Access?

I want to tell a few stories about getting to the writing center I direct to illustrate some of the ways ableism is baked into academia.

The main location of the writing center is on the fourth floor of a building on campus. There are two ways to get to the fourth floor:

  • You can take the elevator located on the south side of the building directly up to the fourth floor. This is easy enough if you enter the building from the south side’s main entrance. However, if you enter the building from the north side’s main entrance, you will find no indicators that you need to go all the way through the building to the south side to find the elevator.
  • You can take the stairs, but you’ll likely be confused when the large, prominent staircase on the south side of the building ends on the third floor. Once on the third floor, you’ll need to wander around to find the place, behind doors, where the stairs continue to the fourth floor. Again, you’ll find no indicators to help you. If you have any kind of impaired mobility, you will likely find this experience incredibly frustrating.

If you make it to the fourth floor, you’ll find that you have to get down a hallway that is technically wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker; however, it is lined with large chairs, shrinking its width by a third and adding a jumble of visual clutter. These chairs are often not lined up neatly against the walls, so their corners may be jutting out awkwardly. Or, in some stretches of the hallway, you may find chairs on one side of the hallway and a few feet later, chairs on the other side of the hallway, meaning you can’t just move in a straight line down the hallway but rather need to navigate like a pinball through the gauntlet—easy enough for some, but very complicated for folks who use assistive devices.

As a vision-impaired person, I find the visual clutter of the chairs to be anxiety-producing, but it doesn’t keep me from getting to the writing center. However, employees and clients with mobility challenges have regularly had trouble getting down the hallway. The hallway belongs to the English department, so three years ago, I told the department’s chairperson that the Writing Center would be happy to purchase slim benches to replace the chairs in the hallway, improving accessibility for everyone.

While the department chairperson was very sympathetic about the access issues presented by the chairs, the benches were never ordered. Even with the money being provided by someone else, the department chair said replacing the chairs with benches simply wasn’t a priority. The department manager was actively resistant to replacing the chairs, telling me, “There’s nothing wrong with these chairs.” When I told her the chairs were a problem, she said, “Well, how many people are really affected? Can’t they go to one of your satellites?”  

These stories illustrate some typically ableist ways that academia engages with accessibility:

  • The challenges of finding the elevator or figuring out where the stairs from the third floor to the fourth floor of the building are seen as the problem of the individual with mobility issues. Although I have complained to the facilities department multiple times, no signs have been added. It’s every individual for themselves. I’ve seen this situation replicated on every college campus I’ve ever been on. Buildings may have ramps, but where they are located is often a well-kept secret; how ironic that the least mobile among us must often circle a building multiple times to find the accessible entrance. A simple sign pointing to the ramp would be lovely. Having a ramp instead of stairs would solve the problem completely (for more on stairs leading to academic building entrances, see Jay Dolmage’s discussion in Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.) These building access issues exist because buildings are designed with only able-bodied people as users in mind, and the lack of signage about accessible features sends the message that people who aren’t able-bodied can enter the building only if they’re willing to make the extra effort to find the accessible entrance.
  • Making spaces accessible is seen as important but not a priority. “Important” here is akin to the “thoughts and prayers” offered by gun rights advocates in the wake of mass shootings—just words. The irony of the department chairperson who does not see making the hallway more accessible as a priority at a university that advertises itself as accessible is interesting. I believe “accessible” here is just a fancy way to say “affordable” and not to be taken to include actual physical accessibility. Even in advertising itself as accessible, the institution imagines only an able-bodied student.
  • The department manager who didn’t understand why perfectly good chairs should be replaced was prioritizing furniture over people. She located the problem in the people who couldn’t navigate the hallway rather than in the hallway crowded with chairs. Rather than getting rid of the chairs, she wanted to get rid of the people, sending them to a satellite. (Considering the difficulties I outlined of simply getting to the fourth floor of the building, I am particularly outraged that someone would suggest that a client who made it that far only to be stymied getting down the hallway should be sent to another building.) The department manager’s assumption is that people who aren’t able-bodied are less important than chairs. Let that sink in: people who aren’t able-bodied are less important than chairs.

To summarize: Access is consistently seen as the problem of the disabled person. Accessibility is “important” but not a priority. Disabled people (and their time and effort) are not important.

In a future entry, I will suggest some actions the average academic can take to push back against this ableism.  

Specific Actions to Change the Way Caregiving is Understood in (Academic) Workplaces

I was both heartened and saddened by the responses I received to my last post on being a caregiver in academia. Many fellow academics and plenty of folks in other fields reached out to me to say that they, too, are caregivers and they wish that part of themselves didn’t have to be so compartmentalized. With that in mind, this post focuses on specific actions we can take to change the way caregiving is understood in academic (and other) workplaces.

Before I get to those recommendations, however, I want to mention a piece on caregiving that the New York Times published just a few days after my post: “The Costly, Painful, Lonely Burden of Care” by Mara Altman. Altman reports that the economic value of caregiving by family members is upward of $470 billion a year, and the bulk of this work is performed by women. This means that women are more likely to suffer the consequences I mentioned last week—stigmatization and professional isolation—as well as burnout, social isolation, financial consequences, and “negative health impacts.” Altman interviews Kate Washington, author of a new book on burnout, Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America, about these costs. I was particularly struck by a statement Washington made on how the economic value of all the free caregiving provided by mostly women is minimized:

There is a narrative that the caregiving work we do is invaluable and the gift of caring is its own reward, but the flip side of something being priceless is that you paradoxically strip it of all its value. It’s so valuable that we can’t put a monetary price on it, which then takes away the economic worth.

Mara Altman, “The Costly, Painful, Lonely Burden of Care”

Because we live in a neoliberal society, we are conditioned to devalue anything without economic worth. You would think that academics, of all people, because so much of the work we do we do for “free” (all that service!), would be sensitive to this, but no, neoliberalism is in the air we breathe and so we are conditioned to not notice these discrepancies.

Which brings me to those specific actions I want to focus on:

  1. Talk about caregiving in your normal voice. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter highlighted how normal caregiving is when she said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” It is very likely that every one of us will be or need a caregiver in our lifetime. In other words, caregiving is normal, not strange or embarrassing or the result of poor choices. Acknowledge caregiving as a valuable activity. If you are not a caregiver, talk about it in your normal indoor voice rather than a hushed one. Every time you talk about caregiving in a hushed voice, you imply that it’s something that should be kept quiet. If you are a caregiver, and if it feels safe to you to do so, talk about caregiving the same way you talk about your other non-work activities. If the only time we mention that we are caregivers is when we need support, the idea that caregivers are needy drains on productivity is reinforced.
  2. Notice and label ableist tendencies that stigmatize caregiving. These tendencies include bragging about not taking leave, shaming folks who do take leave, and assuming that all time that is not accounted for by time-bounded work activities is “available.” When I catch myself doing these things, I find it helpful to identify the assumptions I’m working from and fact check them, so I might say to myself, “Seeing that colleague as lazy for taking so much leave assumes they don’t work hard when they are not on leave. Is that true?”
  3. Connect with others who are caregivers in academia. This is tough because, as I said last week, we don’t talk about caregiving in academia and folks without tenure and others in vulnerable positions may feel the risk involved in making the caregiver part of their identity visible is too much. When those of us who do have job security and other privilege make the caregiver part of our identity visible, we make it easier for others with less privilege to do it. I’ve added the word caregiver to my twitter profile and website tagline to make that part of my identity more visible and make it easier for other caregivers to find me.
  4. Create workplaces that support caregivers. One of the simplest yet most powerful ways to support caregivers is to talk about caregiving. As I said last week, when we don’t talk about caregiving, it becomes harder to talk about caregiving. The opposite of that is also true: when we talk about caregiving, it becomes easier to talk about caregiving. When it’s easier to talk about caregiving, it’s also easier to identify caregivers in the workplace, and it’s easier for them to ask for the support they need. For faculty, one of the most challenging forms of support we need is teaching coverage; when I became a caregiver, a colleague who is herself a caregiver told me she was available to cover my classes if I needed it. When such a program doesn’t exist, the free labor of caregiving leads to the free labor of kind colleagues who are willing to cover classes. All that free labor tends to be women’s free labor. A formal program to make teaching coverage available to those who need it would go a long way toward supporting caregivers and closing an equity gap in academia.

Being a Caregiver in Academia: Stigma, Loneliness, & Silence

The Caregiver Action Network estimates that 29% of the U.S. population fulfil caregiver roles, spending about 20 hours/week taking care of a chronically ill, disabled, or aging person. That care can include bathing and grooming, dressing, toileting, preparing meals, feeding, housekeeping, managing medications, transporting, accompanying to appointments, functioning as a de facto physical/occupational/speech therapist, advocating, and more. The person may be a child, parent, spouse, or friend. The work can be exhausting and never ending, and/but it is absolutely crucial for the wellbeing of the person being cared for.

Given that 29% of the U.S. population is involved in caregiving, I very likely have many colleagues in academia who are caregivers. I know of only two. We don’t talk about this. We talk about our kids’ accomplishments, our travels, what we’ve read lately . . . but we don’t talk about caregiving. When I look for academics writing about caregiving, I find scholarly research about caregiving and caregivers, but when I try to find blogs and other personal, informal writing about being both an academic and a caregiver, I come up empty. The closest thing I have found is this story about Harvard professor Dr. Arthur Kleinman’s experience being his wife’s caregiver.

As with many things, when we don’t talk about being a caregiver, we have a hard time talking about being a caregiver. In other words, the very fact that caregiving isn’t spoken of much in academia beyond it being the subject of scholarly research is itself a barrier to talking about caregiving. Because, as Jay Dolmage has so eloquently explained, “disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education,” talking about being a caregiver means identifying oneself as being engaged in activities that are stigmatized in academia. Dolmage charges that “the ethic of higher education still encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual (or physical) weakness.”  

I shared a story last week about a colleague who took pride in the fact that she hadn’t taken any leave when her mother was in hospice. That colleague was her mother’s caregiver, but didn’t talk about being her mother’s caregiver except to brag that she hadn’t missed work while caregiving. When we brag that we didn’t take leave days to be a caregiver, we perpetuate the idea that caregiving is not a legitimate reason to take leave, which makes it harder (for ourselves and others) to take leave days to be a caregiver.  When we do take leave days for caregiving, we may be reluctant to talk about it, perpetuating the silence around caregiving in academia and further isolating academics who are caregivers.

There are aspects of academia that would seem to lend themselves well to being a caregiver. For example, I have always noted the flexibility of my schedule as an aspect of being an academic that I appreciate. Theoretically, I should be able to easily fit in the hours spent taking care of my husband around the few responsibilities I have as a professor that are time-sensitive. More and more, however, I’ve been noticing how that flexibility is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I often have some say over when I teach and can schedule research, service, and “life,” including caregiving, around classes and office hours as I see fit; on the other hand, I can be seen as on-call during all the times I don’t teach. As a particularly egregious example of this “being on call” mentality, earlier this semester, my entire department was told by the dean and provost that we needed to be available for 60 hours of Friday meetings during the semester and that because none of us taught on Fridays, they knew we were “available.” This assumes that all time not spent teaching is “available” to the University.

Like many caregivers, I find my husband’s needs highly unpredictable. Many of his needs can be scheduled, such as dressing and bathing him. But there are many random things that come up—his left arm, which is paralyzed, may get caught in between the rungs of a chair; he may need something that is out of reach even with his grabber tool; one of our dogs may snag his lunch from his left side, which he is unaware of because of his left neglect, and he suddenly discovers that his food is gone—that I cannot predict. On the other hand, there are times he can go four or five hours without needing me. The unpredictability of his needs can mean that my calendar appears to be open for meetings and other work, but I will not, in actuality, be able to attend a meeting from beginning to end.

The stigmatizing of caregiving and the on-call mentality are both markers of ableism in academia. Ableism assumes that everyone is able-bodied, that disability is a sign of inferiority, and that illness is a result of poor choices. When my calendar appears open but I am in and out of a remote meeting, the assumptions of ableism encourage my colleagues to see my sporadic attendance as a sign of poor planning or unprofessionalism. When I talk about being a caregiver, the lack of familiarity with how to navigate a conversation about caregiving can lead to colleagues being hesitant to even ask me how I’m doing. I recently learned that several colleagues had asked another colleague how I was doing; when she suggested they ask me directly, they indicated that that was too awkward. Ironically, given that nearly 1/3 of the U.S. population is involved in caregiving, it’s likely that one of those colleagues is themselves a caregiver.

I wish I knew who they were, but we don’t talk about these things.

Taking (or Not Taking) Leave in Academia

I want to start with a few stories about taking leave in academia:

Story #1: When I was an adjunct instructor, teaching 6-8 composition courses a semester at two different community colleges to make a living, I had a stroke. My doctors told me to take six weeks off and that I would probably recover slowly over the next year. Luckily I had health insurance, which covered the bulk of my medical expenses, but I was in a panic about how I would earn a living.

When I called the department chair at one of the colleges to let her know about my situation, and before I had mentioned how long my doctor said I would be unable to work, she mused out loud, “I suppose we’ll need to replace you if you’ll be gone more than a couple of weeks.” I immediately assured her I’d be back in two weeks. I needed that job and couldn’t take a chance that they’d replace me for that semester and beyond. My first day back at work, my then-husband accompanied me, holding me up when I couldn’t stand on my own, helping me keep track of time and conversations, which was still challenging for me, and carrying my teaching materials.

Story #2: A few years ago, a colleague on my campus proudly told me that she hadn’t taken a single day of leave when she had cancer or when her own other was dying in hospice. When she told me this, she was chair of her department and expressed frustration that the faculty in her department took leave for every cold and minor illness.

Story #3: When my husband had his stroke in June 2020, I became his caregiver. As a full professor, I have health insurance, access to FMLA job protection, and enough sick and annual leave saved up that I can comfortably take time off from work to care for him without my pay being reduced. Avoiding a pay reduction is important because since his stroke, he’s been unable to work and while disability might be approved for him sometime soon, it hasn’t been yet (we applied in September!), and even if/when it is approved, it will only make up a portion of his lost salary. Since August, I have taken about 6-10 hours/week off from work, with complete support and understanding from my supervisors (as a faculty member with administrative duties outside my department, I have two supervisors: a department chair supervises me in my faculty role and an AVP supervises me in my administrative role). The only sticky point came when my department chair expressed concern that there was no department policy allowing me to reduce my service commitments in the department without it being potentially held against me at my next review. Because I’m already a full professor and have overdone service historically, I’m comfortable taking my chances on having a semester with a lighter service load.

These three stories show how deeply embedded ableism is in policies and practices around faculty leave. When I had a stroke as an adjunct instructor, financial insecurity made me feel the need to place my chair’s concern about having to find another instructor to teach my classes ahead of my own doctors’ advice for my recovery. Going back to work two weeks after my own stroke was dangerous and stressful, but it felt less dangerous and stressful than potentially losing my job. It’s impossible to say what impact going back to work so quickly had on my recovery; I do know that once the idea was put in my head that I would be replaced if I missed too many classes, I never cancelled a class, regardless of how ill or contagious I was.

I’m sure that when my chair mused out loud about having to replace me, she was thinking about students needing to be taught. However, the assumption that an adjunct instructor will not get sick or need time off relies on the idea that being sick or needing time off is not normal. In fact, in this particular situation, it was viewed as cause for being dismissed.

I have a colleague in a non-tenure track full-time teaching position who is a caregiver for a loved one; she does not have the same access to paid leave that I have. She and I are both full-time faculty and we are both caregivers; I can take 6-10 hours/week of leave to care for my husband without taking a pay decrease but she cannot. Why should we have different access to leave when we essentially do the same job? Why does my institution view it as more normal for me to need time off than for her?

Now that I do have access to leave, I’m able to make decisions about taking sick days for myself or to care for my husband without the added stress of worrying about how our finances will be impacted. Without leave, I would quite possibly become resentful about the high level of care my husband needs, or I would be regularly stretched too thin to be a good caregiver or a good professor. As it is, even with leave, I have had moments of burnout. Even with leave, I am judicious about taking it, and I typically bring work with me to my husband’s appointments so I can respond to student papers or plan a class in the few minutes between arriving at an appointment and being called in to see the doctor. I’m still aware that even with leave, there’s a perception at my institution that “good” employees don’t take leave.

This is exactly the attitude that was expressed by my colleague when she bragged that she hadn’t taken leave during her own or her mother’s health crises. She shared that story to highlight her devotion to her job and her professionalism, which she contrasted with the “less professional” attitudes of the faculty in her department who did take days off when they were ill. She did not express compassion for people who got ill, but rather, found fault with them. This is a class ableist thought: people who do not have ideal health are not as worthy as people who do or people who can pass as if they do. My colleague, remember, did not have ideal health and neither did her mother, but she worked hard to pass as if she and her mother did.

In an ableist model, getting ill or taking leave are framed as shameful, unprofessional, indicative of a lack of commitment to a job.

Even in the third story, which is a much happier story than the other two, there is the sticky point about whether a reduced service load while on leave can be negotiated. I am able to take leave, but the expectations for my service are not changed by me working less. In other words, I am still expected to do 100% of my service work, but in less time. Because of the privilege afforded me by being a full professor, I am not particularly worried about repercussions in my next review, but someone without tenure or someone hoping for a promotion would rightly worry.

In this situation, the ableist assumption seems to be something along the lines of, “We’re already giving you time off, now don’t put an unfair burden on your able-bodied colleagues by slacking on service.”

How do we change the culture around faculty leave? Here are my ideas:

  1. Fight for all employees to have access to paid leave. Yes, even adjunct instructors. Start from the assumption that people will get sick rather than from the assumption that they won’t.
  2. If you have access to leave, take it when you need it. The more normalized it becomes for people to take leave, the more normalized it becomes for people to take leave.
  3. When colleagues take leave, be supportive. Don’t question whether they “really” need the leave; assume that they do.
  4. Work to change retention, promotion, tenure, and other review policies to account for employees taking leave. Don’t treat the situation in which a colleague takes leave as an anomaly; plan for it.