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From the AHA Activities column of the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Moving Forward: Disability and the AHA

Debbie Ann Doyle, Jacqueline Jones, and Sandy Sufian, October 2011

In 2006 the AHA's Professional Division, which is charged with ensuring equal opportunity for all historians, recommended that the Association form a Task Force on Disability. This recommendation resulted from the urging of Catherine Kudlick (Univ. of California, Davis), then chair of the Disability History Association, who called upon the AHA to give credibility to disability as "a category of human experience and scholarship that our profession has largely ignored." Like other disability historians, she argued that disability is a "valued category of human diversity on par with gender, class, and race."

Now that the AHA's Council has accepted the report of the task force, the Professional Division has revised its mission statement to emphasize its commitment to "working to ensure fair treatment of all historians, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and/or disability." The members of the task force have generously agreed to serve as members of an Advisory Committee on Disability for two years to help the division implement the recommendations in the report.

As described in the article by Sandy Sufian (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago), who chairs the advisory committee, and committee member Michael Rembis (Univ. at Buffalo), the task force conducted surveys and held open forums at the annual meeting to find out how the Association can best address the interests of historians with disabilities. Task force discussions often focused on the tricky issue of how to engage with historians who might hesitate to respond to surveys or attend an open forum out of fear that identifying themselves as persons with disabilities would expose them to discrimination or stigma. Developing specific recommendations required members to sift issues that are particular to the historical profession from broader disability issues. Access issues in archives, for example, are clearly relevant for historians and the AHA. Obtaining accommodations for students or faculty with disabilities is often the purview of a university disability resource center, but the surveys revealed a strong desire amongst department chairs for more information about campus disability resources. In the end, the task force chose a hybrid approach, suggesting that the AHA develop targeted resources for historians while simultaneously working to increase general awareness of disability issues.

This spring the Professional Division reviewed the task force report and set out a plan for implementing its recommendations. The Advisory Committee on Disability will launch a mentoring program to help graduate students with disabilities to connect and interact with established faculty mentors with disabilities." The program will also offer graduate students advice on how to handle challenges they may face in the classroom and in the archives, how to deal with administrative roadblocks, and how to navigate the job market. The committee is also recruiting authors for a series of articles—to be posted on a disability resource page on the AHA web site—on topics such as avoiding discrimination in hiring, promotion, and advancement; model accommodations policies for history departments; and working with administrators to obtain needed accommodations. Advisory committee members will also organize annual meeting sessions and recruit articles on disability history for Perspectives on History.

The task force report has already had significant impact behind the scenes. AHA staff has been working to make the annual meeting more accessible in myriad ways, from asking speakers whether a raised dais in the meeting room would pose a problem to reserving seats in the front row of sessions for people with disabilities and ensuring that web-based forms are accessible to screen readers. Staff will actively seek contributions to the AHA's existing Archives WiKi on accessibility at archives, and work with other associations on disability issues.

Task force recommendations have also inspired policy changes large and small. One of the earliest recommendations of the task force was that the AHA should update the language in its official documents and communications with members to avoid problematic euphemisms such as "special needs." This spring, the Professional Division strengthened language in AHA policy documents governing job announcements in Perspectives on History and in the Job Center barring discriminatory statements not consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The division will continue to review AHA policies to promote accessibility.

There is always more work to be done in addressing disability issues in the profession. The AHA is dedicated to continually and diligently working toward achieving disability access and equality in the profession and in promoting disability history as a new subfield of history. The advisory committee welcomes suggestions from all members—administrators, faculty, and students—on how to achieve these goals. Comments and suggestions may be e-mailed or mailed to Debbie Ann Doyle, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington DC 20003-3889.

Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA's committee coordinator and convention assistant, and serves as the staff member for the Association's Advisory Committee on Disability.

Jacqueline Jones (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is vice president of the AHA's Professional Division.

Sandy Sufian (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago) is the chair of the AHA's Advisory Committee on Disability.