AHA Launches Task Force on Disability, Seeks Input from Members

Debbie Ann Doyle, November 2008

The American Historical Association aspires to be an inclusive organization open to all who study the past. In the interest of living up to that important goal, the AHA has appointed a Task Force on Disability, which began a three-year term in June 2008. Representatives of the AHA and the Disability History Association (DHA) serve on the five-member task force, which will collect information about the needs of historians with disabilities, study best practices established by other professional associations, and recommend practical steps toward making the profession and the Association more accessible. The task force will consider the experiences of historians with disabilities in graduate school, on the job market, and on the tenure track. The task force will also address disability as an area of research.1

The AHA’s Professional Division recommended forming the task force following correspondence with Catherine Kudlick (Univ. of California at Davis), the chair of the Disability History Association. To determine how the Association could best address issues of disability and the historical profession, the Professional Division sponsored open forums on disability at the 2007 Annual Meeting in Atlanta and the 2008 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

The Professional Division has been redefining its mission, focusing on educating historians, students, and the public about professional standards and employment practices while devoting more attention to diversity. Members readily agreed that disability should be a key component of that conversation. Accordingly, the revised mission statement for the division, approved by Council in January 2008, states that the Professional Division “promotes integrity, fairness, and civility in the practice of history … to ensure fair treatment of all historians, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or physical disability, in the course of their professional training and their careers in the historical profession.”2

Members of the Task Force on Disability include two members of the Professional Division: Vice President David Weber (Southern Methodist Univ.) will chair the task force, and division member Leisa Meyer (College of William & Mary) will participate. David J. Ulbrich (Ohio Univ.) will be the third AHA member of the task force. The leadership of the Disability History Association will be represented by Catherine Kudlick, chair of the DHA board of directors, and board member Paul K. Longmore (San Francisco State Univ.).

The task force will meet once a year at the AHA annual meeting for three years. It will devote its first year to gathering information and then prepare formal recommendations to be submitted—after review by the Professional Division—to the Council.

The first task of the Task Force on Disability is, therefore, to gather information from members of the Association and the profession. The task force invites historians with disabilities, department chairs, directors of graduate studies, members of search committees, graduate students, and anyone interested in fair and open access to the profession to an open forum at the AHA Annual Meeting in New York. Scheduled for Saturday, January 3, from 4:45 to 6:00 p.m. in the Hudson Suite at the Hilton New York, the forum offers an opportunity to discuss professional issues relating to disability and influence the direction of the task force report. The task force will also cosponsor a session on discrimination and harassment in the workplace with the Professional Division, the AHA Committee on Minority Historians, the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, and the Coordinating Council for Women in History on Saturday, January 3, 2:30–4:30 p.m. in the Hilton’s Gramercy Suite B.

Discussions in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., suggested several possible courses of action. For example, the AHA might act as a clearinghouse for information for historians seeking advice about accommodating students and faculty with disabilities; avoiding discrimination in hiring, tenure, and review; and including disability studies in their teaching and scholarship. The AHA could also create advice documents on topics such as how search committees should interact with a candidate with a disability or at what point candidates should discuss a disability with potential employers. From these early discussions, it is clear that the task force will need to consider carefully which issues are specific to the discipline of history and which broader issues would be more effectively addressed through referring historians to a larger organization.

As it compiles its report, the task force will be able to build on substantive research conducted by other organizations. The Modern Language Association’s Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession consulted an access specialist for advice about making the association accessible and continues to address disability issues within the organization. Groups such as the Society for Disability Studies and the National Organization on Disability will also be valuable resources as the task force prepares its report. The task force may even compile a directory of free or inexpensive resources developed by access experts, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officers in universities, and affirmative action offices, for use by historians with questions about access and the profession.

AHA staff have already taken steps to improve accessibility of the annual meeting. A recent survey on access to academic conferences conducted by the International Studies Association suggests that the AHA is on par with other organizations in making its meeting accessible, though of course there is room for improvement.3 Guidelines encouraging presenters to make eye contact, speak slowly, orally describe all visual material, and, if applicable, provide advance copies of their work to sign interpreters were published in the 2008 annual meeting special issue and were distributed electronically to 2009 presenters.4 For many years the Association has provided sign language interpreters on request. In 2007 and 2008, interpreters were also provided for the presidential address and the business meeting. The task force will be an invaluable tool for helping the staff make the meeting as inclusive as possible.

While some might fear that a short-term task force would have less impact than a permanent committee, the 2001–05 Task Force on Public History provides an effective precedent. The task force prepared and submitted a final report recommending concrete steps for addressing the professional concerns of public historians within the existing organizational structure. At the suggestion of the task force, the Professional Division took primary responsibility for public history. I was appointed Public History Coordinator to provide ongoing staff support for implementing the recommendations in the report. Results have ranged from increased coverage of public history in Perspectives on History to the establishment of a formal joint committee with the Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History to draft guidelines and best practices for evaluating the work of public historians in the academy, one of the major recommendations in the report.5 The Professional Division hopes that similar real and continuing change will result from the work of the Task Force on Disability.

Disability studies scholars argue that the primary barrier to access is attitude—a barrier that, we hope, does not exist at the American Historical Association, which is committed to addressing the professional concerns of all its members. Over the next three years, the Task Force on Disability will develop a concrete plan for helping the Association live up to that ideal. Members may contact the task force by e-mailing me.

—Debbie Ann Doyle is administrative manager, public history coordinator, and convention assistant at the American Historical Association. She works closely with the Professional Division on public history and other projects, and will staff the Task Force on Disability. This article is a revised version of Debbie Ann Doyle, “The American Historical Association Task Force on Disability,” Disability Studies Quarterly 28 (summer 2008), www.dsq-sds.org.

Notes

1. From the charge to the Task Force on Disability.

2. The Professional Division, www.historians.org/governance/pd/index.cfm. The task force has pointed out that the statement should be revised to read simply “disability.”

3. Feminist Theory and Gender Studies section of the International Studies Association, Disability and Special Needs Access to Professional Social Science Academic Conferences (April 2008). The AHA was one of six organizations surveyed for the report.

4. Susan Burch, “Making Presentations Accessible,” 122nd Annual Meeting Supplement (December 2007), 28. Online at www.historians.org/annual/2008/AMSupplement/.

5. See www.historians.org/governance/tfph/TFPHreport.htm.