The Challenges for Academics with Disabilities
- Student Tips
When you think about attending academic conferences, you think of opportunity, idea-sharing, network- building, and a time to reflect on your work with others. For academics with disabilities, academic conferences are all of these things—in addition to being incredibly stressful.
Why? Accessibility. Conference locations, airports, wheelchair accessibility, materials in Braille, accessible conference websites, acoustics, food—all of these issues play a role in whether an academic with a disability can effectively attend an academic conference.
Fear not. There’s hope.
The key? Advocacy.
If you are an academic with a disability
1. Set goals and stay focused
Be strategic about what you do—and be loud about it (see #2). Set your publication goals, your speaking goals, and your teaching goals, and make sure that you stick to them.
You are your best advocate. Whatever your goals are, make sure that you have the services you need. Need transcription services? Talk to your department and staff. Need help typing? Set up your practice so that you have someone to help you during the times you need it.
Remember this: keep your goals measurable, and don’t hesitate to ask for the services you need to do your job.
2. Get your voice heard
Make sure your voice is heard not just in your department and your campus—try to work at the policy level, too, if you can and want to.
The more thoughtful disability research that reaches the public, the more likely it is that you can help pass legislation to make positive changes to disability law.
3. Find support
Organizations like Chronically Academic offer a network of academics with disability and chronic conditions. Their goal? To help others with “practical advice in finding concrete solutions to the issues” facing academics with disabilities and chronic conditions.
In addition to peer support, they also serve as a clearinghouse of resources and are working to establish a mentoring network.
If you are a non-disabled academic
1. Always check for accessibility in your organization or conference
If you go to a conference, check to make sure that all venues are wheelchair accessible, that there are ample bathrooms, and that the venue is accessible by reasonable transportation.
What else helps? Knowing that there are quiet rest areas, easily accessible food options, and places to stay.
If you’re at an event with a series of long days, make sure that there are adequate breaks for everyone—so that everyone can participate.
Bottom line? Conferences, workshops, and universities should not be places of undue physical and mental stress for any academic.
2. Consider your approach to advertising for jobs
Jobs that advertise “walking,” “talking,” or “hearing” as requirements are discriminatory and may discourage academics with disabilities from applying, despite other relevant qualifications.
While there are certainly jobs that may require heavy lifting or other physical demands, many jobs don’t require it—but have physical abilities as requirements in their advertisements.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) works to enforce the federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee based on a person’s “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.”
If you ever suspect that you or someone you know has faced discrimination because of a disability, you can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
3. Participate in diversity training
There’s always room to learn more. Go to training and become aware of your own challenges and unconscious biases. The key? Empathy.
As someone without a disability, learning what some of your colleagues may experience will help you understand not just how to be a better colleague—but how to be a better person.
Learn more about disability studies.
Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.