FGS 34 (2018) Out of Order: A Personal Perspective on Academic Ableism | Petra Watzke

Being disabled means being confronted with barriers that are invisible to most able-bodied and able-minded people. Being a disabled faculty member at a university or college means being confronted with these seemingly invisible barriers in an environment that is built on the systematic exclusion of disability. Consider the following scenario. On my way to my office on the fourth floor of a building on campus one morning, I saw an “out of order” sign on the door of the elevator. For able-bodied people, this sign would constitute a minor inconvenience, as they now have to walk up four floors instead of taking the elevator. For me as a wheelchair user this sign signaled a catastrophe. Not only my office, but also the only two classrooms that have been retrofitted with accessible AV podiums and where I teach all my courses are on the fourth floor. Without the elevator, I had to reorganize my workday around this obstacle. This meant contacting various offices and facility services, as well as my students. Eventually the office manager of the World Languages Department found alternative classrooms that I could teach in to some extent and retrieved teaching materials from my office. Seeing as AV equipment in these rooms was largely inaccessible to me, I managed to improvise by using my laptop. Due to the improvisational nature of the setup and the quick reorganization required from everyone, I realized that it would not be a day of ordinary lessons. I therefore took the opportunity to introduce my students to the harmful potential of a belief in normalcy, ableism in general, and academic ableism in particular.

Our communal lives are founded on an ingrained belief in normalcy that shapes people’s understanding of who is allowed to enter, move freely, and participate in society. Normalcy presents itself as static, unchanging, even natural. Yet this concept of normalcy is not a given fact of existence, but a socially constructed referential system (Titchkosky, “Normalcy” 132). Disability Studies (DS) scholars, such as Henri-Jacques Stiker,  Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,  Vic Finkelstein, or Lennard Davis, have examined the historical and cultural influences on the concept of normalcy and demonstrated that this concept is not the static benchmark that dominates self-understanding in contemporary societies, but an artificial construct that underwent significant changes throughout history (131).  Based on such research, DS questions the validity of normal as a social concept and, with it, society’s reliance on it. DS research also emphasizes the understanding of normal as a performative process (Michalko 82). The failure or inability to perform the task of appearing normal is met with stigmatization and exclusion, in order to reinforce the hegemonic power of normalcy in society. By examining the constructed nature of normalcy and its authoritative powers, DS disrupts a fundamental social concept that is often taken for granted and allows for a critique of everything that normalcy determines.

By defining people through their disability and curtailing their access to various social resources based on the idea of normalcy, society exerts negative power over disabled people. Rosemary Garland-Thomson brings these detrimental influences of normalcy into focus with her term “normate man.” She defines this term as representing “the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them” (Garland-Thomson 8). The normate man is culturally and socially positioned according to expectations and can fully participate in society and glean its benefits. This ideal of the normate man constitutes the basis for normalizing the exclusion of people that do not meet this definition, as Tanya Titchkosky maintains:

A belief in normate man and normate culture helps to make the marginalization, or even exclusion of some people seem natural. This process is perpetuated by the removal of definitional power from those understood as disabled. Daily life confronts many people as an obstacle to participation since it is set up in support of the mythical normate man. (Titchkosky The Question of Access  26)

The “out of order” sign on the elevator thus not only communicated the malfunction of this piece of equipment but also marked me as being out of order. For able-bodied people the broken elevator would be hardly noticeable, whereas for me it meant a significant event in my day. The breakdown of the elevator, on which I rely as an essential part of my workday, defined and circumscribed the limits of my agency and confirmed my marginalized position in a society that is based on normate ideals.

The social consequence of this ingrained belief in normalcy is ableism. Following Simi Linton’s definition, ableism “characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled” (Linton 9).  Ableism permeates our culture and society and becomes visible in architectural decisions, educational standards, and individual attitudes. Somebody in the college I work at responded to the breakdown of the elevator described above by putting a sign next to it that read “Challenge yourself, take the stairs!” This happened, presumably in an attempt to reduce strain on the old elevator by encouraging able-bodied people to not use it.[1] Somebody wrote in pen at the bottom of the sign: “not possible with arthritis.” This comment exposes the inherent ableism of the sign. Not all disabilities are easily recognizable, and clearly someone felt shamed by a sign that ultimately proved an aggression against their own understanding of their disability. This sign and the person’s response to it highlight the ableism that is transported through inherent beliefs in normalcy, made visible in the assumption about who should and should not be allowed to use the elevator. While ableist incidents such as this one are imaginable in many public spaces, the consequences of the elevator outage for me exposed specific traits of academic ableism that demonstrated how the belief in normalcy inherently defines academic institutions and excludes disabled people.

As my introductory anecdote exemplifies, the lack of accessible classrooms, environments that are challenging to navigate, and the burden of emotional and organizational labor to negotiate such shortcomings are institutional obstacles that accompany disabled faculty members in their work lives. Academia often proves to be a challenging, even hostile place for disabled people, both students and faculty. According to the DS scholar Jay Timothy Dolmage, such a disability-hostile environment at postsecondary institutions demonstrates that beliefs in normate ideals have historically functioned as foundational principles of such institutions and continue to do so to this day. Dolmage states, “academia powerfully demands able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, as well as other forms of social and communicative hyperability” (Dolmage 7). Such demands for able-bodiedness and able-mindedness have legitimized the systematic exclusion, objectification, stigmatization, and marginalization of disabled people in academia and constitute what he calls “academic ableism” (Dolmage 7) . The deeply ingrained attitude of academic ableism profoundly defines postsecondary institutions all over the US (and beyond). This is most visible in the architecture of many campuses, where grand staircases symbolize the aspirational goals of higher education, and intricate, heavy gates evoke academia’s elitism and tightly-controlled access. These choices of campus architecture make visible the exclusion, the elitism, and the belief in normalcy that underpin all aspects of academic life.

In my introductory anecdote, the inaccessibility of most AV podiums on campus communicated the assumption of academic ableism. During the teaching portion of my campus interview, it became clear that the standard AV podiums were inaccessible to me. In those podiums, the AV controls are embedded in the top, so that they can only be operated by someone standing at the podium. The podiums were built for a normate academic culture that did not (want to) foresee a physically disabled person in the role of instructor. After I accepted the college’s job offer, two classrooms (close to my office) were retrofitted with accessible podiums. With this, as in general, my college has been supportive in an effort to accommodate my needs. But the breakdown of the elevator showed the limits of those well-intended retrofits. Not being able to access the two classrooms in which I can effectively teach, served to highlight academic ableism and my marginalized role on campus. Retrofits are of limited use and often have (unintended) consequences that further marginalize disabled people. As Dolmage argues, “Retrofits address inequities and inaccessibility, but do so in ways that reinforce ableism” (70). Due to the inaccessible design of the AV podiums, I am excluded from the majority of classrooms on campus.

After the elevator incident, several offices on campus have been working with me to devise a contingency plan for the future that would streamline and automate the process of arranging for alternative teaching venues, etc. At one point we even discussed moving my office and/or my courses to different buildings on the college’s hilly campus. However, we eventually discovered that, in addition to the inaccessible podiums, there would be structural obstacles that would involve the use of an elevator, no matter where on campus my office or my classrooms would be. This demonstrates the reality of academic ableism as it is manifest in architecture and design. Trying to work within such a system as a disabled person involves taking on challenges that no one on campus had previously seen or anticipated. This means that disabled faculty are tasked with negotiating for an accessible work environment, an environment free of invisible barriers, that non-disabled faculty members can often take for granted. This is most likely an important factor in why disabled faculty members are an underrepresented minority, which can be seen not only in their low numbers, but also in the lack of research into disabled faculty, especially when compared to the statistics and research available on disabled students.

Academic ableism in twenty-first century institutions of higher education has been well documented especially as it pertains to disabled students: the burdens of gaining accommodations through disability services (Berberi), the often insufficient nature of retrofits to enable access (Dolmage), or the inaccessibility of traditional pedagogical concepts (Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory). Furthermore, statistics on the enrollment and graduation rates of disabled students are (relatively) easy to obtain. In recent years, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, eleven percent of undergraduate students self-identified as having a disability and registered with disability services (“Postsecondary Education” 438). These low numbers are further complicated by the fact that only about forty percent of disabled students register with disability services (Schley, Haji-Akbar). Disabled students who do not register presumably seek to avoid stigmatization and potentially also the involved process of requesting disability accommodation through on-campus services (Greengrass). Furthermore, students who officially placed accommodation requests have no guarantee that these requests will be honored by their professors. Professors might be reluctant to change their teaching, or not demonstrate interest in accommodating students. Allie Grassgreen states, when describing professors’ lack of respecting requested accommodations, “The situation is so bad on some campuses that one student said it feels like ‘a luxury’ when professors and staff actually work with them’ (Grassgreen). Disabled students—due to structural inequities, institutional and administrative barriers, and personal prejudices—are not granted equal access to postsecondary education. The reluctance of disabled students to self-identify and the limited effectiveness of disability accommodations demonstrate disabled students’ general disenfranchisement in an academic system that is built on values of elitism and exclusion. While the data for disabled students is alarming, the situation for disabled faculty members might be even worse.

It is not easy to find research on disabled faculty or any official statistics on the number of disabled faculty members at postsecondary institutions in the US. This topic has not received sufficient scholarly attention. The few available sources demonstrate the low rate of disabled faculty in the US (and beyond?). In his article “The Neglected Demographic: Faculty Members With Disabilities” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2017, Joseph Grigley, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, vividly highlights the scarcity of research on instructors with disabilities, and at the same time he demonstrates how underrepresented this demographic is in academia:

At the University of California at Berkeley, a recent Freedom of Information Act request indicated that of 1,522 full-time faculty members, 24—roughly 1.5 percent—are disabled. The National Center for College Students with Disabilities estimates that 4 percent of all faculty members have disabilities. These numbers are discouraging, given that 22 percent of the general population has disabilities. (Grigley)

This quote highlights the disparity between the presence of disability in the general population and its appearance among faculty. The fact that so little information about the number of disabled instructors is available is further discouraging. But Grigley’s numbers are corroborated by other available resources on this topic. Dolmage, for instance puts the number at “3.6 percent based on an US Department of Education Study in 2004”.[2] The low number of disabled faculty in higher education further emphasizes the pervasive power that ableism plays in academia.           Dolmage elucidates academia’s ingrained mechanisms of enforcing normalcy: “Universities continue to function to keep certain groups of individuals out of the work force and away from status positions, and away from knowledge, and dialogue, and power, and not just through admissions” (21). Keeping disabled faculty members away from positions of power (as is also true for other marginalized groups), perpetuates academic ableism and reinforces the damaging ideal of normalcy. If there are no disabled tenure-track faculty members in positions of power, then disability can be construed as unimportant to the institutional framework. Dolmage does not state whether the number he quotes represents faculty members in tenure-track positions, contingent faculty, or both combined. He continues by commenting on the scarcity of reliable information: “There is no data available on the exact number of disabled professors pushed into the adjunct ranks, but given the general trends around employment discrimination against disabled people, we can assume that the majority of disabled PhDs, who do teach, do so as adjuncts” (23). It would not be surprising if the general trend toward the adjunctification of the teaching body unduly impacts disabled faculty members. This assumption is supported by an article published in Disability Studies Quarterly, under the pseudonym, Alice K. Adjunct. In this article, the author assesses the chances for disabled academics to become full professors, bleakly:

Unfortunately, the opportunities for PhD’s with disabilities to become full professors are growing less, rather than more, available. Research suggests that there is still a pervasive atmosphere of malignant neglect toward faculty accommodation. This neglect, coupled with the explosively expanding shift toward an adjunct, rather than tenured, academic work force bode ill for aspiring professors with disabilities. The adjunct economy adds yet one more inherent workplace disadvantage to the load of them already borne [. . .] by new PhD’s with disabilities. (Adjunct)

The incremental loss of tenure track positions further marginalizes disabled academics and keeps them from positions of power. Further research on the number of disabled educators in contingent position and the status of disabled faculty members in general is necessary in order to demonstrate the underrepresentation and systematic marginalization of this group.[3]

While confirming the increasing number of disabled academics in adjunct positions, this quote raises another important point: the lack of an accommodations procedure for disabled faculty. Unlike for disabled undergraduate students who have access to existing (albeit flawed and potentially discriminatory) disability services that handle the administration of academic accommodations, such a body does not exist for faculty. On the faculty level requests for reasonable accommodations are often handled on a case-by-case basis and disabled faculty members essentially have to rely on the goodwill of their department, the dean of faculty, and various administrative offices around campus. Grigley sees making a request for reasonable accommodations as “[o]ne of the biggest challenges for disabled faculty members” and proposes a more streamlined process: “It’s time to rethink how colleges process faculty requests for disability accommodations. For starters, they need a dedicated administrator with appropriate professional training to support on-campus access and to advocate for access when they travel as part of their work” (Grigley). As intimated above, for disabled academics the struggle does not end once they secured a position teaching in postsecondary education. Mechanisms of marginalization and exclusion are built in to campus life and continue to unduly burden disabled faculty. Self-advocacy is a time-consuming, onerous, and often frustrating process that disabled academics have to fulfill in negotiation with—and in addition to—their job duties. According to Grigley, this minimizes the impact they could otherwise have as educators: “Only when disabled faculty members are allowed to teach and research unencumbered by a need to advocate for access, will students be able to see the possibilities of a career that extends beyond their disability.” Grigley sees the potential for disabled faculty members to play an important role in the process of making academic culture more inclusive and diverse, but only if they themselves are fully included.

My anecdotal example demonstrates the ingrained nature of academic ableism as we encounter it in the everyday, and indicates the real-life struggles of negotiating access and accessibility. One meaningful step towards the inclusion of disabled faculty members and students alike would be a rethinking of disability in general. Instead of seeing it as an individualized problem that concerns mainly the disabled person and that is addressed as a problem and potential liability,  it has to be understood as a communal concern. As Tanya Titchkosky states, “[w]hile ‘normal’ is a socially achieved status that does not imagine disability differently, understanding disability as an image that is made between people can occasion a desire to develop alternative images of normalcy and disability” (The Question of Access 60). Disability is created and exacerbated by environments that pose obstacles and require negotiation. Not only the disabled person but the larger community benefits from inclusion, as inclusion allows for and creates communication and exchange. A rethinking of disability in higher education is urgently needed to begin a dialogue about the meaningful inclusion of disabled faculty members and students. By highlighting some of the challenges that I encountered in academia, this essay hopes to contribute to a critical conversation about academic ableism.

Petra Watzke graduated with her PhD in German studies and a graduate certificate in film and media studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently holds a position as visiting assistant professor of German in the department of world languages and literatures at Skidmore College in New York State. Her research focuses on industrialization, technology, and objects in nineteenth-century literature by women authors. Additionally, she examines how academic ableism shapes the culture of the German language classroom. With this work she hopes to contribute to shifting the discourse around disability in higher education from an individualized medical concern to a diversity issue.


Works Cited

Adjunct, Alice K. “The Revolving Ramp: Disability and the New Adjunct Economy.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 3, 2008, http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/110/110.

Berberi, Tammy. “Bridging Worlds Apart: Disability and Foreign Languages Where We Live and Learn.” Worlds Apart? Disability and Foreign Language Learning, edited by Tammy Barbieri, Yale UP, 1-20.

Burgstahler, Sheryl and Rebecca Cory. “Moving in From the Margins: From Accommodation to Universal Design.” Disability & the Politics of Education: An International Reader; edited by Susan L. Gabel and Scot Danforth. Peter Lang, 2008, 561-581.

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Michigan UP, 2017.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia UP, 1997.

Grassgreen, Allie. “Dropping the Ball on Disabilities.” Inside Higher Ed, 2 April 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/02/students-disabilities-frustrated-ignorance-and-lack-services.

Grigley, Joseph: “The Neglected Demographic: Faculty Members with Disabilities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 July 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Neglected-Demographic-/240439.

Haji-Akbar, Amir. “Disability Parking Spots Yet to be Filled.” Inside Higher Ed, 9 April 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/04/09/higher-ed-needs-new-approaches-hiring-faculty-members-disabilities-opinion.

Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability Knowledge and Identity. New York UP, 2010.

Michalko, Rod. The Difference that Disability Makes. Temple UP, 2002.

Snyder, Thomas D. and Cristobal de Brey. “Postsecondary Education.” Digest of Education Statistics 2016, 52nd edition, National Center for Education Statistics, February 2018, 399-646.

Titchkosky, Tanya. The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. Toronto UP, 2011.

—. “Normalcy.” Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, New York UP, 2015, pp. 130-32.


[1] Another response was an overhaul of the elevator, which improved its reliability.

[2] I have not been able to verify this study.

[3] It would be particularly interesting to see a study about how the demographic of disability changes from undergraduate to graduate education and eventually to academic employment.