Tag Archives: academia

Stop Shaming People Who Use Accommodations to Work Remotely

“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.”

Don’t Be the Grief Police—Please!

The Grief Police is what I call people who feel they can judge other people’s grieving and tell them they are doing it wrong—or sometimes even worse, commend them for doing it well. There’s a faction of the Grief Police specifically dedicated to widows: the Widow Police. Those are the people who feel they can dictate who gets to call themselves a widow, determining that someone who lost their long-term partner but wasn’t married isn’t a “real widow” and the like.

Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things, recently featured a conversation with grief advocate Marisa Renee Lee, author of Grief is Love. The title of the episode, “Why Grief—Like Love—is Forever,” gives the gist of Lee’s philosophy of grief: it doesn’t go away. It may become more familiar, comfortable, and bearable, but it will never go away. But the Grief Police still think they can say when and how grievers should “move on” or “get over” their grief.

Lee’s message that grief is forever resonates with me. I’m now 13 months out from my husband’s death, and most days I do not feel overwhelmed by grief, but I still have the occasional day in which I seem unable to function in any meaningful way beyond napping, moping, and crying. Even days that are not napping-moping-crying days often have a napping-moping-crying component. I still miss my husband terribly every single day.

Lee says “the love that we share with people leaves a permanent mark on our brains,” and people grieving a loss will never “get over it”; rather, they learn to live with the loss.  In my experience, learning to live with the loss happens one day at a time and you’re never done learning. My mother died 40 years ago, and I’m still learning to live with that loss. My husband only died about a year ago, so I have a lot more learning to do there.

Lee emphasizes that grievers need to give themselves permission to “be a mess,” and notes that this is harder to do for some folks than others. I’ve been grateful to be in a relatively supportive work environment for that, but I recently spoke to another widow whose boss told her that after three years, she should be over her husband’s death and not need to take his birthday and death day off from work. Yes, that boss is a member of the Grief Police.

Beyond supportive bosses, there’s an aspect of privilege involved in being able to express your grief at work or in social situations; as Lee says, “Vulnerability requires a sense of safety that is not equally distributed in our society. Some people are too busy, too female, too poor, too Black for vulnerability.” The Grief Police I’ve met are not interested in unpacking issues of privilege or in creating safe spaces for vulnerability.

One of the most heartbreaking Grief Police stories comes from an amazing woman I know whose son died many years ago. Someone told her, “You must never speak his name again.” I like to think we are past that kind of ridiculousness in 2022, but unfortunately, I know we are not. In the widow support groups I belong to, people frequently share stories about being told that they need to stop talking about their spouses who died. The Widow Police tell them that it’s off-putting for potential romantic partners or confusing for children. I think it would be more confusing for a child to see that a flesh and blood human who died is erased from their loved ones’ memories.

Lee points out that one of the best ways to support a friend who is grieving is to let them talk about their dead loved one. I think hearing your dead loved one’s name is magical. Many grief support group meetings begin with each participant introducing them self and saying something about who they are remembering. I love saying, “I’m remembering my husband Tom, who died last year.” Saying his name out loud to people feels concrete. In those moments, he has not evaporated into the ether. He feels present with me. I can never say that sentence without crying, but I’m smiling, too.

I have the same sensation when I go to the bench commemorated to him a few blocks from my house. There’s a small plaque on the bench that reads “Tom DeBlaker, 1960-2021. Audacious life. Indomitable spirit.” Seeing his name on the plaque always makes me smile, and often makes me cry. I often read the plaque out loud when I’m at the bench and sometimes run my fingers over the engraving.

I never tire of hearing his name from other people. His brother texted me last week to say something funny had happened to him that he wished he could share with Tom. Just seeing Tom’s name in the text made me smile—and cry. The smiling and crying seem to coincide regularly.

The Grief Police only notice the crying and deem it awkward, inappropriate, and upsetting to others.  It’s easy enough for me, as a white person with tenure, to dismiss the Grief Police with an eye roll or a curt comment, but folks with less privilege may not have that luxury. It’s up to those of us who do to push back where we can.

Turning Toward + Relaxing into Grief

It’s been about 19 weeks since my husband Tom died and I’ve been surprised to find that after a month of fairly quiet grieving, my grieving in the last two weeks has been more dramatic and noticeable. I’ve been crying at work more than I have since my first week back in September. I’ve been crying at home in the evenings, especially after dinner, when the house and dogs are quiet and there is nothing left to distract me. I am still feeling peaceful about his actual death, but I am missing him intensely. I’ve had a few moments in the house where I was sure as I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of him, or even worse, I turned a corner expecting to see him, and he wasn’t there. Both experiences cause a sudden welling of emotion and I find myself going from totally fine to being a puddle on the floor in an instant.

I suspect that the times I’ve cried at work are related to me feeling more connected to the routines of work rather than just going through the motions, as I was for the first six weeks I was back. I’ll be walking back to my office from class and think of a funny thing that happened in class that I can’t wait to tell Tom about it and then, BAM, there’s the remembering that he’s gone. For the first six weeks or so, “Tom is dead” played like a soundtrack at very low volume in my head during every moment. Now that the soundtrack has faded, I have moments of dramatically remembering that he’s gone.

I also am spending less time absorbed in the bureaucratic aspects of his death—settling his estate, paying bills and arguing about insurance matters related to his last hospital stay, notifying people and organizations of his death, planning celebration of life events, and the like. This frees up my brain to do more grieving.

I knew from the widow support groups I’m in on Facebook that this could happen. Lots of people in those groups post about spikes in grief that come up unexpectedly or around birthdays, holidays, and other special days. With Halloween being Tom’s favorite holiday, I wondered if the end of October would trigger more dramatic grief in me. Now I have my answer. I also know from years of therapy that I can’t hurry my process or avoid it, so I’m just letting it unfold and documenting it for you. Thanks for being my audience.

Instead of pushing my grief aside, being frustrated with it showing up inconveniently, or being embarrassed about its unexpected appearances, I’ve been trying to practice what Buddhist meditation teacher Doug Kraft calls “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace. Tom and I discovered Doug Kraft after Tom’s stroke, when we spent a lot of time together listening to audiobooks and Buddhist lectures and meditations on forgiveness. (I’ll blog at some point in the future about the profound role forgiveness played in Tom’s last year for both of us.) Kraft has a very open, colloquial approach to Buddhist concepts, which Tom appreciated.

To turn toward and relax into something, Kraft says we need to let go of the “preverbal, precognitive, instinctual tightening” that happens inside us when we perceive something threatening. He gives this example:

When we are about to step off the sidewalk and notice a car coming our way, the body tightens. We don’t think about it, contemplate it, or decide to stiffen. It just happens.

https://www.easingawake.com/?p=ThreeEssential

Kraft explains that the tightening itself isn’t suffering, but it’s the tightening that keeps us from turning toward and relaxing into our suffering. He says that to really experience peace, we need to turn toward and relax into our suffering. I know from my 20+ years of Buddhist practicing that this is classic Buddhist thought, and I also know that I’ve never been able to do it. Now that I am working on doing it, I realize that I’ve never actually tried to do it but rather dismissed it as an unrealistic goal. Maybe because I’m older now or maybe because I’m experiencing much more intense tightening than I have in the past, what used to appear to be an unrealistic goal now appears to be the promised land and I want to get there.

As I work consciously to turn toward and relax into my grief, I notice that one of my default strategies to avoid turning toward and relaxing into my grief is working. I find myself thinking, “I don’t have time for grief, I need to be prepping for class or revising an article draft.” In reflecting on my past, I can see this as an ongoing theme from the time my mother died when I was 12. At that time, I turned toward schoolwork and reading. Whenever I experienced a loss, I dove into schoolwork and then later, work. I received praise for my diligence around schoolwork and work, so it felt like I was doing something right. Now I see that the affirmation around schoolwork and work was misleading.

Doing well at school and at work results in tangible deliverables and rewards: good grades, a publication, a line on a resume or CV, accolades from colleagues and/or students. There are defined milestones—the end of the semester or the submitting of a manuscript. With grieving, the milestones are ambiguous. There is no external recognition of doing a good job. When someone asks me what I’ve been doing lately, it’s a lot more socially acceptable to say, “I’ve been working hard” than “I’ve been immobile on the couch crying.”

For me, turning toward involves loosening my attachment to milestones and goals. The recent resurgence of my not-quiet grieving is a reminder that milestones and goals related to grief are unrealistic and that grieving is not a linear process.

I also want to note, as I often do, how privileged I am to be in a position where I can relax my focus on job-related goals without fear of losing my job. I’m tenured, I’ve been promoted to full professor; I don’t have to worry about being judged for not publishing as much for a while or not putting 100% into my teaching this semester. I will certainly be judged, but it won’t have any consequential effect on my career. What if I were at an earlier, more precarious point in my career? I was not able to give myself the room to even think about turning toward and relaxing into grief when my grandfather died and I was working as a food server. When I experienced turmoil in my life when I was working as an adjunct or when I was pre-tenure, attending to my mental health in this way could have had catastrophic effects on my career trajectory.

Stop Asking IF Your Students Have Questions!

I asked one of the worst questions of my students last week after I explained an assignment to them: “Does anyone have questions?” How do I know it was a bad question? Because no one answered it. I gave my usual ten seconds of silence before speaking again, and when I did speak, this is what I said: “What can I clarify?” Instead of silence, this time I was greeted with SIX requests for clarification.

While the two questions may appear to be very similar, the dramatic difference in reception indicates that they are actually not that similar at all. Here are some of the differences:

  1. “Does anyone have questions?” is a closed question with only two acceptable answers: yes or no. In contrast, “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, inviting a range of responses.
  2. Because the only acceptable answers to “Does anyone have questions?” are binary, and as with all binary options, one option is privileged over the other, there is actually only one “good” answer to the question. Every student knows “no” is the correct answer. To answer yes either challenges the brilliance of the authority figure posing the question because, using the example of the assignment I had just described to the class, it implies that the assignment wasn’t written clearly, or exposes the student to being perceived as lazy, stupid, not paying attention, or some other negative descriptor. Because “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, there are no obviously privileged answers.
  3. Because the privileged answer to “Does anyone have questions?” is “no,” it silences questions while appearing to invite them. It normalizes not asking questions. “What can I clarify?” is open, so it normalized asking questions.  
  4. Because “Does anyone have questions?” silences people with questions and implies that no questions should be asked, it positions the asker as more powerful. On the other hand, because “What can I clarify?” assumes that clarification is needed, it positions the asker and the answerers as working together to make meaning.

Another terrible question that I find myself asking from time to time is “Does that make sense?” While asking that conversationally with a peer can be somewhat effective, asking it of students in a scenario similar to the one I describe above is likely to meet with the same silence as “Does anyone have questions?”

Faculty know students have questions. I hear faculty wondering sometimes why students don’t ask more questions. Perhaps it has something to do with our own questions.

Noticing Ableist Assumptions about Meeting/Class Discussions

Last week I was in a meeting of about 20 people in which a topic I have very strong opinions about came up. I very much wanted to contribute to the discussion, but other people were jumping in so quickly that I had a hard time really processing what they were saying while simultaneously trying to organize the complex thoughts in my head. Every time I thought I had my thoughts organized enough to articulate them aloud, someone else would start talking and I would need to leave my thoughts aside to listen to the speaker. After about 15 minutes of spirited discussion that I had not contributed to in any discernible way, the discussion slowed down and finally, the person facilitating the meeting asked if there were final thoughts. The following three seconds of silence gave me the opportunity I needed to finally organize my thoughts and I was able to share them.

Had there not been those few seconds of silence, I might have not contributed at all to the discussion. To others in the meeting, it might then have appeared that I was completely disengaged or had no opinion or thoughts on the topic, which was not at all the case.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common experience for me. I have moments of being able to think quickly enough to jump into a conversation immediately, but it is more common for me to need some time—sometimes just a few seconds, as in the example above, and other times a few minutes—to collect my thoughts and get them ready for prime time. This was true before the exhaustion of being my husband’s caregiver and then unexpectedly a widow kicked in, and it’s gotten more pronounced since then.

While silence during a discussion can appear to be evidence of lack of engagement, there are many other reasons someone might not participate in a discussion:

  • Like me in the example above, they may be a reflective thinker who needs time and/or quiet to process thoughts.
  • They may be a deep listener who actually pays 100% attention to what others are saying, which means they aren’t simultaneously formulating what they will say.
  • They may have a cognitive processing difference that makes it hard for them to make sense of rapid or overlapping speech.
  • They may be tired, undernourished, and/or underhydrated. All of these conditions affect cognitive function.
  • They may be anxious, either about a particular situation in their life or they may have an anxiety condition. Either way, cognitive function could be affected.
  • They may be introverted and despite all of society’s pressures to participate in the type of discussions typical of meetings and classes, that simply may not be the way they are wired.

Despite all these very good reasons for not participating in discussions, I hear colleagues immediately judge students and colleagues who don’t participate in discussions in meeting and classes as “lazy,” “disengaged,” or “in over their heads.” I do it, too; in fact, I’ve noticed that my default is to wonder what is “wrong” with the person. This is an ableist way of looking at the situation, assuming there is something defective about the person who is not responding the way I want. I’ve been working over the last few years to notice myself having that thought and remind myself of all the very good reasons a person may have for not participating in a discussion. To mitigate my own tendencies to make this unfair judgment, I have been working on ways to build some silence and processing time into facilitating discussions.

As a teacher, I begin each class with a five-minute writing prompt designed to help students collect their thoughts for the discussion we’ll have in class. I also use the classic “count to ten in your head” after asking a question before I speak again. As an NCFDD coach, I allow generous silence during conversations to allow folks time to collect thoughts. But I do not typically allow silence in the meetings I facilitate, in part because I have prided myself on running “efficient” meetings and silence does not appear to be “efficient.”  

I have much more work to do on this front as a meeting facilitator. Allowing silence in meetings means sacrificing efficiency; I hate meetings and want to get them done as quickly as possible. But I recognize that getting them done quickly at the expense of restricting fruitful discussion is counter-productive. I am going to start playing with beginning important discussions by asking everyone to take two minutes to jot down their thoughts.

As a meeting participant, I am going to start asking for a moment to collect my thoughts. For example, in the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, I could have said, “I have some thoughts to share but I need a moment to collect them. Please bear with me.” I have never seen anyone do this in a meeting and I suspect other participants who don’t need the time I need to collect thoughts may find it unprofessional or even disrespectful of their time. I have tenure and can afford for people to think less of me, so I am going to try this strategy, but for folks with less privilege than I have, it may not be a viable strategy.

Meeting facilitators could allow folks to continue conversations that begin in meetings by email or on a discussion board for a certain amount of time, which would allow folks who need time to collect their thoughts to do that. In the past, I’ve been criticized for sending email follow ups after discussions in meetings for “dragging on a conversation that is over.” I’ve been told, “Too bad you didn’t bring that point up in the discussion when we could have done something with it.” These responses rely on the assumption that not contributing to the discussion in the moment can only be due to laziness or other negative characteristics.

At the end of chapter two of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price describes many clever ways of making class attendance and participation policies less ableist. Many of the strategies she describes could also be used in meetings.

What can you do to allow time and space for reflection in the discussions you facilitate or participate in?

Supporting Student Wellness beyond “How Are You?”

I’m hopeful that the pandemic has made us a little more compassionate and aware of how stressful the lives of our students are, and I’m happy to see faculty on social media talking about building mechanisms into their classes to check in with students about how they are holding up. My own institution has repeatedly reminded faculty of the resources available to students and urged us to connect students with those resources, but I know from personal experience that it’s a lot more effective to tell students about the specific resources they need than to tell them about a few dozen resources they might need. When someone feels a need, they pay attention.

One of the cleverest check-in tools I’ve seen was created by my amazing friend, Alex Lockett. She wrote an online survey that she will send to her students once a week during the semester to allow her to understand what they are dealing with and how. Depending on the feedback she gets on the survey each week, she can curate the support and types of resources she suggests to the class.

Alex gave me permission to share her survey. I want to highlight that she is generously sharing her work here and asks only that you give her credit if you end up using or modifying her survey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Here is Alex’s survey.

What I like about this survey:

  • It’s not about making sure students are “doing wellness right.” The survey isn’t used to penalize or shame students who are struggling with self-care. The questions are authentic, caring inquiries into students’ wellbeing. I can imagine asking these questions of individual students during office hours or in the transition time before or after a class meeting. They are conversation openers.
  • Students can opt to complete it anonymously, which further removes any connotation of shame or judgment.
  • The survey is about wellness rather than productivity. So often, wellness and productivity are conflated, with the measure of a person’s wellbeing becoming how many deadlines they met or how many pages they read or some other “how many” metric. Alex’s survey avoids that by focusing on what people did for their wellbeing rather than on how much of something they did or what they did not do.
  • The question that asks students “how are you feeling today?” offers students nine faces to choose from to represent their current state, ranging from a toothy grinning face to a red nearly exploding face. To my mind, this is so much more effective than asking folks to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10 or to choose from likert-type options (good, very good, etc.). It also shows audience awareness—emojis are how our students are more likely to express their moods.
  • The question on different aspects of self-care serve as reminders of what people taking care of themselves should do each day. For example, “Have you eaten in the past 12-24 hours? If you say no, you need to feed yourself. If you don’t feel like cooking, try eating a handful of nuts or some fresh fruit. I highly recommend always keeping some trail mix around because sometimes we get so preoccupied that we neglect a sustainable meal schedule.” The question itself offers concrete suggestions about what self-care looks like and the suggestions are appropriate for college students.

This survey is designed for use in a classroom setting, but I think it could be easily modified by department chairs or managers of non-academic workplaces to check in with folks. I’m going to create a version of it to append to the form tutors in the Writing Center use at the end of each shift to summarize and reflect on the shift.

Thinking About the Needs of Disabled Folks in Classrooms & Workplaces

As someone who teaches rhetoric, I am always noticing how the ways we talk about something shape the ways we think about that thing. I recently discovered The Squeaky Wheelchair, the blog of Kathleen Downes, a woman with cerebral palsy, and found myself nodding emphatically to every sentence of her post “It’s Your Job Too: Dismantling the Myth of Specialness and Making Inclusion a Community Responsibility,” in which she argues against using the word “special” to describe the needs of disabled people.

Downes notes that

Calling our needs special isolates them from the rest of human needs, and in the process shrouds them from the body of general knowledge. When needs become special, they are tucked away in special departments run by special people who specialize in specialness. Disability becomes its own hidden corner of the universe as it is implied that only those with a related job or a family member with a disability should ever bother to explore the issues that come with living a disabled existence. The responsibility to learn about and be aware of our lives is seemingly confined to the world of specialists and people who “have experience with those kind of people.”

https://www.thesqueakywheelchairblog.com/2014/10/its-your-job-too-dismantling-myth-of.html

She goes on to explain that the needs of disabled people are not “particularly special . . . We need to eat, sleep, get dressed, bathe, go to the bathroom, breathe, and a whole bunch of other painfully ordinary things.” As both a disabled person and the caregiver of a disabled person, I can attest that it’s true: our needs are pretty mundane. Most of our needs can be met by almost anyone. For example, I’ve written before about how one of my needs is to have someone read a hotel room number to me—no special training needed, no special skills, nothing special at all.

In academia, we adapt things for able-bodied people all the time. My faculty colleagues often brag in their retention, tenure, and promotion applications about how willing and even enthusiastic they are about meeting the needs of a diverse group of students. But those same colleagues can also often be heard complaining about the “special needs” of students registered with our disabilities services center. When faculty think of students having diverse needs, they take pride in meeting those needs. But when they think of students as having “special needs,” suddenly those needs become above our paygrade.

The truth is, the needs of those students are often the same needs of any other student: being able to read the slides or the assigned reading, being able to hear the professor and peers, being able to sit comfortably in the classroom, having enough time to process instructions and follow them. The needs themselves are not special, and even the ways those needs can be met are not special. Switching from a low contrast to a high contrast slide template isn’t special. Giving everyone in the class two hours to take an exam instead of one isn’t special (your class is only 75 minutes long? Then put fewer questions on the exam).

When I informally polled a class in fall 2019 (pre-pandemic) about their ideal testing situation, more time, a distraction-free environment, and no fluorescent lighting were the top three requests of the students, regardless of disability status. The only request on this list that was the least bit surprising to me is the one about lighting, and I realized that I could easily make a fluorescent lighting-free environment available to my students by making all exams take-home (this is hypothetical—I don’t actually give exams in my classes), allowing students to take the exam outside, at the library, at home, etc. Although these requests are not at all strange or exotic, think about how differently these two sentences strike you:

  • “Susan needs extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”
  •  “Susan has several special needs: extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”

Susan sounds like a fairly typical student in the first sentence, but in the second sentence, she sure sounds high maintenance, doesn’t she? Simply by calling needs “special,” they become more exotic, more inconvenient to provide, and potentially even unreasonable.

We could play further with the sentence. What about this one?

  • “Susan performs best with extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”

Now Susan sounds pretty unremarkable.  

You may be thinking, well, none of this matters much for me, I don’t work with disabled students or colleagues (or students/colleagues with “special needs”). Not so fast. Because of issues I’ve recently discussed, including how exhausting it can be to ask for accommodations and how expensive, difficult, and time-consuming it can be to get documentation of disabilities, you likely have more disabled students in your classes or colleagues in your workplace than you realize. Why wouldn’t you want everyone to be able to perform at their best?

Downes argues that because of the way we talk about (and thus think about) the needs of disabled people as “special,”

the responsibility of people outside of the direct disability community to include and think seriously about access issues is shifted away based on the belief that “special services” will deal with it.

https://www.thesqueakywheelchairblog.com/2014/10/its-your-job-too-dismantling-myth-of.html

But it is actually everyone’s responsibility. And it isn’t difficult most of the time. The suggestions I’ve offered for making classrooms and workplaces accessible aren’t hard to put in place or particularly “special.” For many people, implementing my suggestions simply means being deliberate about things you may already be doing. My suggestions aren’t that you do anything “special” for “special” people with “special” needs, but that you think about making your classroom or workplace accessible. Not special, but accessible. Or even inviting, or responsive. Play with words you like until you find one that resonates with you and your teaching practice and then aim to make your classroom [whatever that word is].

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)

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.