The Historical Discipline Has an Ableist Problem
Disability in the COVID Era
Whether it is not knowing the federal legislation that must be followed on campus, not being versed in disability studies, not fully understanding the realities of having a disability, or too few disabled scholars, the historical discipline has an ableist problem. Throughout academia, and in departments, schools, and associations like the AHA, historians should become more aware of, knowledgeable about, and accepting of colleagues and students with disabilities, and should engage more with disability history and studies—issues only further emphasized by the pandemic era. However, there are concrete steps the discipline can take to correct course.
In 2011, a joint task force between the AHA and the Disability History Association (DHA) submitted the first and only report to date on disability in the history discipline to the AHA Council. The task force originated in 2008 “to gather information about the concerns of historians with disabilities and to propose practical solutions for as many of them as possible.” A major focus of the task force was how to make the Association and its annual meeting more accessible. Unfortunately, the task force did not address other underlying issues historians and students with disabilities regularly encounter, but the report did reveal a number of serious matters that we must address.
As part of its information gathering, the committee conducted a survey sent to departments, faculty, and graduate students with disabilities. The results were telling, but not surprising. Concerning upholding Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations, 20 percent of responding departments provided hiring and search committee and interview accommodations. Of those employed with disabilities, only 23 percent stated that their institutions and departments provided accommodations in the tenure and promotion process. Even more troubling is how little support students with disabilities receive. Of those graduate students with disabilities surveyed, 74 percent held concerns and strong fears related to interviewing and hiring.
My own experiences as a disabled student and historian corroborate the AHA and DHA’s findings. Since the end of my undergraduate studies, I have suffered from an acute autoimmune disease that has left me permanently disabled. Like many disabled people, my disability is invisible, not made obvious to the outside observer by a mobility device, a service animal, or other aids. If I disclose it, it is an act of trust or required to ensure my rights are honored. While my experiences disclosing my disability to trusted individuals have been positive, that has not held true for higher education spaces.
For the first few years after becoming disabled, I was able to give myself monthly home injections that came with few side effects. However, during the first year of my doctoral studies, my medication changed to one delivered via intravenous infusion at an outpatient facility over an hour away. To build up the new medication’s effectiveness, I had to return for booster infusions—first weekly, then biweekly, monthly, then finally bimonthly, which remains my schedule to this day. Such infusions can leave you weak, fatigued, and nauseous. To accommodate these side effects, I realized I would have to adjust my coursework. I reached out to my professors about my situation, and most were more than accommodating.
Unfortunately, one professor denied accommodations and insisted that I come to class immediately after my third booster infusion. The professor threatened that if I did not attend, my grade would suffer. I had no choice but to go and hope that I would not vomit or fall asleep in class. I was clearly ill and could not focus enough to contribute much to the discussion, but the professor showed little empathy. In denying me reasonable accommodations, this professor violated not only university policy but also the ADA. To this day, I have mixed feelings about the situation and what I should have done to address it. I regret not reporting the professor to the university, but I was afraid of the possible ramifications.
With time, I have come to realize why I did not speak up. Like other marginalized people who face racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and a litany of other -isms, I had several reasons why I did not report the incident. I did not and still do not trust the university system to rectify such things or correct wrongs within their ranks, especially concerning tenured faculty who violate policy and law. As we have seen in several high-profile situations over the years, tenured and tenure-track faculty are rarely held accountable for such violations, and I was not confident my case would be different. And because of the power dynamics between a graduate student and a professor, I feared reprisal or being labeled as problematic in my academic career for advocating for myself when my rights were violated.
Disability can be folded into the teaching of broader civil rights movements.
The realities faced by people with disabilities, including historians, have largely been ignored. But during the age of social media, scholars with disabilities and those who teach disability history and studies have connected online and have spoken up about their experiences. Many of these groups have formed during the pandemic. The Disabled Academic Collective provides resources for disabled academics and advocates for the importance of accessible classroom designs, fostering inclusive classroom settings, and the possibilities and importance of digital humanities for disabled academics and those who teach disability history or studies. Connecting through the collective’s Twitter account, disabled academics can provide mutual aid and support for one another. Disabled in Higher Ed also formed during the pandemic to provide similar support. The organization aims to use social media to “promote discussion, inclusion, and belonging of disability in higher education spaces.” Furthermore, they want to establish a safe space to exchange stories like mine anonymously on social media and to discuss the underlying issues disabled academics face.
But disabled scholars cannot fix this problem alone. How do we work toward solving it? First and most obvious is to incorporate disability history and studies into history courses, lesson plans, and book lists. Too often, the inclusion of disability in an introductory US history course might include Helen Keller, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Medicare, and the ADA. Yet disability histories and stories fit into many of the narratives we already teach in such courses, and disability can be folded into the teaching of broader civil rights movements. For instance, while discussing the 20th-century in the United States, an instructor could include how disability rights were circumvented under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the antipsychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Ed Roberts and the Independent Living Movement of the 1970s, or the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University in the 1980s. Furthermore, materials by disabled scholars, on disability history and studies and other topics, should be included on book and reading lists for courses and graduate exams.
Second and more difficult is for members of hiring and grant committees to examine the department or program’s record of honoring disability rights and accommodations for applicants. As the AHA-DHA task force’s findings revealed, many will have to take an honest look at their current practices and choose to actively honor disability rights and accommodations and to reject ableism. Additionally, akin to the rights of other marginalized groups, zero-tolerance policies should be enacted equal to those disallowing discrimination against other historically marginalized communities. Hiring committees and universities’ human resources departments should reconsider how they post job openings, the language used in the announcements, and the inclusion of disability in their commitment to diversity. For instance, when explicitly conducting a diversity hire search, encourage disabled candidates to apply and include their story in their cover letter or diversity statement. Depositories and archives that provide grants and fellowships can also do a better job encouraging disabled applicants to apply for their funding opportunities and making accommodations for disabled scholars’ needs when researching.
As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, we cannot ignore the issue of disability. It is unclear how many the virus has left disabled or grappling with “long COVID.” These individuals come from all walks of life and all forms of employment, including academia, and this increase in disability makes it more essential than ever that we address ableism throughout American society. By incorporating the voices and presence of historians with disabilities, the profession will become more inclusive and diverse.
In a nation where nearly one in five people has a disability, the historical profession clearly lags behind in its commitment to comprehensive diversity. Our discipline will only improve when we welcome historians with disabilities to bring their expertise and experiences to the table.
Michael Murphy is a research assistant professor of African American history at Thomas University.
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