Task Force on Disability 2011

Prepared by Sandy Sufian

In order to further its mission of guaranteeing equal opportunity for all historians, the Professional Division, in 2006, recommended that the AHA form a Task Force on Disability. This recommendation took place after the chair of the Disability History Association urged the AHA to seriously consider disability as a valuable category of analysis in historical scholarship and to acknowledge the presence and contributions of historians with disabilities. The Task Force on Disability was approved at the 2008 Annual Meeting and began its work in June 2008.

As Doyle, Jones and Sufian state in “Moving Forward: Disability and the AHA,” (Perspectives October 2011): “The charge of the TFD was to research and to propose practical solutions that address the concerns of graduate students and historians with disabilities in the profession. The Task Force recommended resources for historians with disabilities and tried to help improve the visibility of disability history at the Annual Meeting. The Task Force made recommendations to strengthen accessibility at the Annual Meeting and to alleviate serious barriers faced by historians with disabilities on the job market and in tenure and promotion procedures. In addition to organizing three open forum sessions (2008, 2009, and 2011) at the Annual Meeting, the Task Force held phone meetings to discuss its ongoing work and to set forth subsequent plans. The full content of the final report of the Task Force on Disability can be found here.

In 2010, the Task Force administered surveys directed to DGS/Chair, faculty, and graduate students in history departments. These surveys asked questions about disability accommodation issues in respondents’ history departments and at the Annual Meeting; discrimination encountered at respondents’ universities and colleges; hiring and promotion practices and experiences, and awareness of disability policies and resources at respondents’ workplace.  These survey answers were anonymous.  Despite a low response rate, the results of the surveys are extremely telling about the status and experiences of academics with disabilities in US history departments.  Sandy Sufian and Michael Rembis published details of the results and an analysis of these surveys in an article entitled, “Moving Beyond Accommodation: The Work and Findings of the AHA Task Force on Disability” in Perspectives (October 2011).

In addition to survey work, the Task Force on Disability worked to devise a mentoring program to help graduate students with disabilities to interact with faculty mentors with disabilities.  The mentorship program is intended to help graduate students with disabilities deal with challenges in the classroom, in the archives, with administrative obstacles and with the job market and hiring. Pairings are currently underway and once matched, faculty and students will be able to conduct an autonomous and hopefully enriching relationship.

At the end of the tenure of the Task Force, a final report was submitted to the AHA about the activities of the Task Force. Several recommendations were made that are now being implemented by the AHA. For instance, once the AHA Council accepted the final report, the Professional Division revised its mission statement to include the fair treatment of all historians, including those with disabilities. It also updated language in its official documents and outreach communications with regard to disability. Policy documents that deal with job announcements now clearly state that universities cannot discriminate based on the Americans with Disabilities Act.  A commitment to the constant reevaluation of accessibility issues has also been made. In addition, an Advisory Committee on Disability was created—composed of the members of the Task Force on Disability—to help the Professional Division implement other recommendations proposed in the report.

The Committee is now recruiting authors for a series of advice documents to be posted on a disability resource page on the AHA web site, on topics including avoiding discrimination in hiring, promotion, and advancement; model accommodations policies for history departments; working with administrators to obtain needed accommodations and teaching disability history. Advisory committee members will also recruit annual meeting sessions and Perspectives on History articles on disability history.

During their tenure, members of the Task Force worked hard to fulfill their dual charge—to promote disability history as a subfield of history and to work on access and equity issues for academics with disabilities. Because of the extensiveness of these tasks and their nature as long-term and ongoing projects, the Advisory Committee is now working, and will continue to work, to help the AHA address these complex issues.