Publication Date

October 1, 2011

Disability eventually touches everyone, whether through contact with friends, family, or co-workers, or through personal experience. In academia, many faculty and staff teach or encounter students with disabilities on their campuses. Not surprisingly, the pervasiveness of disability in our academic world is replicated in current demographic measures that show that people with disabilities represent the largest minority group both in the United States and worldwide.1 According to a U.S. federal survey for the year 2008, students with disabilities make up 11 percent of all postsecondary students.2 The profile of this rapidly growing group of disabled students appears to be similar to their nondisabled peers with regard to age, race, and type of school. In the United States, a small but rising percentage of disabled students are attending graduate school and are attaining academic positions.

The presence of students with disabilities on U.S. campuses has been accompanied by an increased interest by historians in teaching and researching topics relating to disability history. Within a growing field of inquiry, disability historians have written histories of deafness, blindness, chronic diseases, epidemics, prosthetics, eugenics, veterans, immigration, and social welfare policy, among other topics. Much like historians of gender and race, disability historians call for a critical assessment of disability as a category of historical analysis.

In response to the rising prevalence of disability amongst academics and in historical practice, the Disability History Association (DHA) contacted the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2006 about "more fully integrating disability into the intellectual and functional life of the AHA." The AHA's Professional Division recommended creating a joint task force with the DHA, which was approved at the 2008 Annual Meeting. The Task Force on Disability (TFD) formally began its work in June 2008. 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 made recommendations to strengthen accessibility at the AHA's annual meetings and to alleviate serious barriers faced by historians with disabilities in their graduate training, on the job market, and in tenure and promotion procedures. In addition to organizing three open forum sessions (in 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 text of the final report of the Task Force on Disability can be found at

In 2010, the task force conducted separate surveys directed at three constituencies in history departments—directors of graduate studies (DGS) and history department chairs, DGS/Chair, faculty, and graduate students. The surveys sought information about issues encountered by people with disabilities in their departments and at the annual meeting. Topics included hiring and promotion experiences, discrimination encountered at their universities and colleges, and knowledge of disability policies and resources at their workplace. All surveys were anonymous. The sample size was small; the 93 total responses consisted of 26 from the graduate student survey, 31 from the faculty/professional historians' survey, and 36 from the survey of the department chairs and directors of graduate studies (the low response rate was most likely due to hesitancy to disclose disability status). But the narratives and general findings are particularly instructive on the status of people with disabilities in the history profession. A discussion of our findings follows.

Perspectives on Disability Discrimination, Accommodation,
and Experiences on Campus

Perhaps the most striking result of our surveys was the stark disparity between what the DGS/chairs reported with regard to disability accommodations and what faculty and graduate students with disabilities described. This discrepancy applied to questions concerning accommodation and discrimination in all phases and aspects of one's career: graduate school, interviews and hiring, promotion and tenure, research, and teaching.3

Hiring: The majority of DGS/chair respondents indicated that they were unaware of any discrimination in the hiring process. In contrast, 74 percent of graduate students reported having specific disability-related concerns and strong fears related to interviewing and the hiring process. One graduate student respondent remarked that misunderstandings of certain disabilities like Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) easily led to discrimination in the hiring process. Graduate students living with other psychiatric labels wrote of being fearful of disclosure because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Still other graduate students stated that taking medication that caused memory loss or speech difficulties posed significant obstacles to successful interviews. One graduate student feared making mistakes during a job talk because of dyslexia. Blind and deaf graduate students were concerned that a lack of disability awareness and a concern about accommodation costs (such as those incurred for interpreters) would prevent them from securing a job, especially in settings that required classroom instruction. One graduate student recounted being denied academic employment because of the inaccessibility of a university building. Some graduate student respondents felt as though students with disabilities are either forced to fit into a "one size fits all" graduate history program or are forced out of programs, and that disability accommodations are only granted "up to a certain point" in their departments.

Promotion and Tenure: Survey results indicated that challenges around discrimination and accommodations continue after a disabled scholar gets hired as a faculty member. Of the DGS/chair respondents, 79.4 percent believed they have adequate knowledge about disability services and providing accommodations, and 73.5 percent stated that they were unaware of any instances where discrimination affected a colleague. All but one DGS/chair respondent believed that attempts at providing accommodations were successful and that their colleagues were satisfied. Yet, in contrast, 52 percent of disabled faculty stated they were not accommodated at work.

Research: It is well known that faculty must do research and publish within a certain amount of time in order to receive tenure and promotion. These requirements however, often have an unfair impact on disabled faculty. Archival research, for example, is not always an easy or straightforward undertaking for scholars with disabilities. More than one faculty respondent wrote that they had to change their research plans because of inaccessible archives where no one "wanted to help." In addition, academic expectations for writing and timely publication do not always fit the life circumstances of disabled faculty and often result in inequitable professional standing. One faculty member, for instance, took more than 10 years to write a second book because of disability-related issues and felt that the consequently delayed promotion and lack of merit raises meant the loss not only of wages but also the respect of colleagues. Survey responses showed that it was not merely faculty with disabilities who suffered and felt frustration with regard to research, promotion, and tenure; faculty who have children with disabilities are equally misunderstood and their promotion, tenure, and equity concerns frequently go unaddressed. Overall, the faculty surveys revealed that disabled faculty members' inability to be equal participants in the departments can have real and lasting effects on their morale and upon their tenure and promotion process and prospects.

Attaining accommodations: Despite the legal requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, 100 percent of disabled faculty respondents stated that the burden of getting accommodations falls largely on them, sometimes to the extent of providing their own health insurance, accessible equipment, and software. Faculty respondents wrote that departmental and university staff commonly treat accommodations like "favors." They maintained that they have to ask "repeatedly" for accommodations, sometimes with no results. When arrangements are made, they are regularly "ad hoc." Many faculty are compelled to educate colleagues, administrators, and students about access issues. A majority of faculty said they are forced to plan ahead; many avoid going to departmental functions where they know they will encounter accessibility difficulties. Many adjunct and assistant professors expressed their hesitancy to make accommodation requests because of their tenuous institutional status and their general sense of being disempowered.

Classroom and technology accommodations: More than half (53.3 percent ) of disabled faculty respondents reported that they encounter issues with classroom accommodations; 23.3 percent encounter issues with computer accommodations and technical assistance; and 30 percent have issues with office accommodations. All of these logistical aspects of the profession are important, indirect components of advancement.

AHA Annual Meeting: One critical point that nearly all respondents agreed upon was that the AHA should take a more active role in promoting equity not only in interviews and on campus, but at the annual meeting. Nearly all (95 percent) graduate students want the AHA to help increase awareness of disabilities and disability-related issues in the profession. A big majority (74 percent) of chairs/DGSs also felt the AHA should promote increased awareness of disability issues in the profession. Half of all respondents supported promoting awareness of disability issues beyond the meeting though mentoring and networking programs.


Consistent with the supportive testimony of survey respondents, the AHA Task Force on Disability recently initiated a mentoring program connecting history faculty with disabilities and graduate students with disabilities. The program is meant to nurture and help graduate students with disabilities navigate their academic terrain and to facilitate their entrance into the profession and to do so while preserving confidentiality. Readers who are interested in mentoring or being mentored under this program, should go to the following website to sign up:

The Task Force on Disability made several recommendations to the AHA in its final report that attempt to address the concerns expressed in the surveys. The details of these recommendations can be found in the report. A few ideas will be presented here.

Interview process: The task force suggests that the AHA provide information to history departments/employers, at the annual meeting and beyond, about the rights of access and accommodation to which people with disabilities are entitled under federal law. Best practices in hiring and information on the ADA should be disseminated. The TFD recommended that the AHA request that all employers, when indicating the various steps of the interview process, state that accommodations will be provided, and then provide a check box to ask if an interviewee needs accommodations (and put this query only to all who are invited to an interview). The onus for asking for accommodations should not be on applicants with disabilities for it is clear that many fear this will jeopardize their candidacy.

Universal Design and Disability Law: Similarly, information about the ADA on the AHA web site will help history department chairs understand their obligations to their faculty members with regard to disability accommodation in teaching, research and service. The task force suggested that the AHA promote the concept of "universal design" in education to history departments so that students with disabilities and faculty with disabilities will not face barriers to their classroom experiences. This practice provides a welcoming environment for all students and teachers , including those with disabilities. The University of Washington has developed a center for universal design in education; it details principles and practices for instituting universal design in postsecondary education.4 We recommend that the AHA either feature these ideas in an issue of Perspectives on History or that it send a document to affiliated history departments encouraging faculty and staff to institute as many elements as possible.

Annual Meeting: The task force also recommended ways to strengthen the number and content of panels and papers related to disability history at the annual meeting. Suggestions included having the AHA Program Committee look for possibilities of creating multisession workshops or thematic strands out of independently proposed panels on disability history in order to stress the broader conceptual rubric of disability history where appropriate. Highlighting such sessions explicitly in the program will likely bring scholars together and bring more visibility to disability history as well as the issues facing historians with disabilities.


In its work and in its recommendations to the AHA, the task force emphasized that historians and academics in general must all work together to promote access and integration, and not merely accommodation. The Task Force on Disability believes that historians must educate and integrate disability and disabled people into our lives and into our histories.

Sandy Sufian, who chaired the task force on disability is now chair of the AHA's newly constituted Advisory Committee on Disability, and also represents the Disability History Association on the committee. She is associate professor of medical humanities and history at the Department of Medical Education, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Medicine.

Michael Rembis represented the American Historical Association on the task force and continues as an AHA representative on the committee. He is associate director of the Center for Disability Studies and adjunct professor in the department of history at the University at Buffalo (State Univ. of New York).


1. Recent reports from the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that between 650 million and 1 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability. In the United States, there are approximately 54 million disabled people, or 19 percent of the total US population. World Health Organization, World Report on Disability 2011 (WHO Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 2011); Disabled World, ADA 20th anniversary U.S. disability facts and statistics (online at, accessed August 3, 2011); United Nations Enable, Fact Sheet on Persons with Disabilities (online at, accessed August 3, 2011).

2. Government Accountability Office, “Higher Education and Disability: Education Needs a Coordinated Approach to Improve Its Assistance to Schools in Supporting Students,” (online at, accessed August 3, 2011).

3. In addition, the faculty and graduate student surveys delineated the effects that a lack of accommodations could have on morale and one’s sense of collegiality.

4. See:

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