Cripping Academia

I’m putting off Partie Deux of my post about life with a service dog because something else has come up that has spurred me to write: disability and academia.  This has, in fact, been on my list of blog topics for a while, but an interesting email exchange between some colleagues prompted the timing.

One of my colleagues (Colleague 1) forwarded via email to the department this article, which discusses gender bias in student evaluations.  It’s a very short article about a study with a very small sample size, but my colleague sent the email in an attempt to spur conversation, as we are in the midst of self-evals (yay…).  Another colleague (Colleague 2) responded that this article had a major fault (actually, the word “revolting” was used): it failed to raise the question of race.  As I read the reply, I thought, “interesting, – strong language – but not the point of the study.  That’s a different bias, and a different study.” So, Colleague 1 replies to Colleague 2 that, unfortunately, circumstances land us in the same boat.  Colleague 1 went on to point out that most job ads state that “women and minorities are encouraged to apply” in order to support the unfortunate similarities of the situations.

So far, I had been silently following the email with interest, but this got me going.  I’ve taken exception to the application process at many institutions, a process that often neglects the very idea that someone with a disability might apply, or would be encouraged to do so.  Some places tack on something to include LGB diversity (I’m purposefully leaving out the TQ because they are usually left out – yay Obama for mentioning the T in his SOTU: see the Time article on it) , but in my job search, I did not encounter anything about disability.  Yes, I know, the “minority” thing is a blanket term.  Fine.  I accept that.  However, when you go online to actually apply, they ask optional questions about race/ethnicity and gender.  I have never (to date) been asked about disability.  I know that was eight years ago, but I’ve chaired my fair share of search committees since then, and it’s still not on our app.  I realize that many people would not choose to disclose disability, as many people choose not to answer the race/ethnicity and gender questions, but if we are going to gather data, we should gather all the data.

Having served on a “diversity and inclusion” task force, I know that the answers to these types of optional questions are used to report data on recruiting and retention of minorities.  My own institution uses data from surveys for retention efforts of both students and faculty who are part of a minority.  Though, as far as I can tell, it stops with race and ethnicity.  We’ve finally got some LGBTQ-ish stuff happening, I’ll admit.  But, – and here’s the thing that got me to respond to this email exchange – no one has ever tried to recruit me (except, ironically, the Marines as a musician in high school, and they only saw my info on paper) or retain me.  And, according to this data, only 7% of doctoral students have a disability.*  Not all of them will go into academia, or succeed in academia.  Recruitment and retention are important!  Not once has my institution approached me to ask how they might make my life easier, make me want to stay.  I’m a smart cookie.  I’m a good great teacher.  I work hard on committees.  I’m collegiate.  I do research.  And I make them look more diverse, if they’d ever stop to think about disability as diversity.  But, they don’t.  I’m not only a disabled faculty member, but I woman, and also partly an administrator whose made a name for herself on campus.  I’ve even offered to help start a mentorship program for disabled students, explaining how difficult it can be to shift from having parent-advocates to being your own advocate at a time when you want to be making new friends, not waves.  I’ve been here eight years and nada.  

For the record, here was my reply to the email exchange:

And, I might add, nowhere does it address disability!  People, students and employers included, often assume that you are less able in all ways because you are disabled in some way(s).

As [Colleague 1] implies, I think it would be safe to say that all minorities are judged according to a standard that was not made by, or for them.  The inequities are of different sorts, but inequities just the same.  In my book, all minorities (women, people of color, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.) thus have a duty to work towards diversity and inclusion for all groups, not just their own.  I even have a blog entry about it!

A couple of things bothered me about this exchange. One, colleague 2’s defensiveness about a different issue, which made an assumption that we do not care about race/ethnicity.  This made me feel as though gender bias did thus not matter to this colleague, who expected us to care about race.  I appreciated that colleague 1 attempted to calm the waters by bringing up the job ad issue, and I know the intent was genial.  But, “dammit,” I thought, “if we’re going to talk about diversity, let’s talk about diversity.  Let’s stop this, ‘my situation is worse than yours’ game.  It gets you nowhere.” As you can tell, my blog includes issues like #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQ equality.  We are ALL in the margins of society.  This is why I replied how I did.  For the record, as of today, no one has replied to my email.  Hmmm.

This brings me to the topic about which I’ve been thinking for a while: “crip time.” This lovely piece by Anne McDonald explains what “crip time” means to her and her disability (CP): Crip Time.  For me, crip time means needing extra time to get to meetings, to get up from a chair, to get into my car, to “run” to the student union for coffee.  For me, walking is slow because my legs are short, and because I’m in pain.  As I said in my last blog, having a service dog also means that I take more time to get places because I have to get him ready, too.  Colleagues most often don’t think about where they schedule a meeting, or how hard it will be for me to get there.  They don’t think about accessibility or if I have a class to get to afterwards, or how hard it is for me to sit in a chair from which my feet dangle for several hours, pulling on my back and arthritic joints.  My life just runs at a different pace.

Unlike someone with motor impairment, I don’t struggle to write or talk.  I make myself understood very well.  However, my disability takes up a large amount of time in my day, and in my psychical space.  It takes time and energy to be disabled, to deal with chronic pain.  The idea of teaching on a bad day stresses me out.  How can I make it through a two-and-a-half-hour class when my back hurts so bad I want to cry?  How do I summon the energy to be passionate about a topic, which usually does make me passionate, when I just really want to load myself with NSAIDs and head to bed?  Does this impact my student evals?  I have no idea.

Beyond the daily impact, there is potential to impact your career in academia when you have (and disclose) a disability.  All of these moments when I wonder if I can go on are also moments when I push myself to continue so I can keep up with my colleagues.  So I can get tenure.  (Got it now). Recently, published an article outlining some research that has been done on faculty work hours: So Much to Do, So Little Time.  The article states that, “On average, faculty participants reported working 61 hours per week.” There are also some snazzy charts that break down our pathetic attempts to get work done:

Besides making me want to cry with anxiety about my todo list, this made me think about other types of “crip time.”  There are all these random things that get done during the day, and at home, and the coffee shop, and on vacation.  Oh, and my 75-mile commute each way, which is made more difficult by my disability.  When you add things like pain, slowness (in both mind and body), and physical therapy to this list, it’s downright overwhelming.

The article goes on to say “[…] that the study did not take into account summer work habits — when faculty members may have more time to do research.”  This made me laugh to myself a bit, and then die a little inside. In the interest of full disclosure, I got tenure two years ago, but not without much crying and stress about how I spent my summers.  The first summer as a faculty member, I had a knee replacement.  Not such a big deal, unless you have an underlying disability that makes it even more complicated, and painful.  People said, “you’ll have lots of time to read!” Except for the fact that I was so uncomfortable for six weeks that I couldn’t read an article to save my life.  The next few summers I read a lot and got some stuff read and written, but I was also revamping our curriculum and designing an inordinate number of new courses.   Then I was department chair pre-tenure (aaaack!) – something you feel you can’t refuse when you haven’t been publishing so much because you have had surgery, and because you don’t want anyone to think you can’t handle it. Then my shoulders.  Then my back.  It never stops.  I honestly don’t know how much time I’ve lost to my disability.  Time that could have been spent being a better teacher, a quicker grader, a better researcher.

I just finished my “sabbatical,” which mostly turned out to be medical leave without officially being one.  I had my second shoulder replacement over the summer.  I was feeling great by September and ready to research my heart out when my back rebelled and put my academic goals on hold, and put my life at a standstill.  How do I explain that I wasn’t that productive over my leave?  Does it make it look like disabled people really can’t hack it?  Could I have “stopped the tenure clock” for my disability like people can for having, or adopting, children?  Some universities allow clock stoppage for chronic illness (for oneself or a loved one), but is disability a chronic illness?

I’m writing this only hours before I go in for a procedure to help alleviate some of my back pain.  A lot of people have back pain, it’s true.  Mine is directly linked to my disability.  I don’t walk right because of the way my anatomy works, and because of my knee replacement (which has left me with a partially fused knee), and because of my ankle arthritis, which has fused my ankle on its own, and… and…  This also means that my back pain is different than your average back pain.  I’m not an athlete who has beat up my body.  I’m not old.  I’m 38 and live with a disability that includes aggressive, early onset degenerative arthritis.  It sucks, but I can’t put it in my self-eval as a reason why I didn’t do all the things I want to do.

I have a feeling that people may raise the question of childrearing and how much time it takes.  Agreed.  However children grow up and be more independent, and if you’re careful or meticulous, you can plan your timing around your career.  Disability never grows up; mine will get worse.  I will say this: I got tenure because I put my body in jeopardy to work the 60+ hours faculty seem to work.  Now, I have tenure, and I can barely move.  Since then, I’ve decided that I could work 60 hours and put in my crip time on top of that, and destroy my body.  Or, I could do what I can do within that 60 hours, including crip time, and live with the consequences for my career.  What would you do?  Career or health?  For a long while, I thought it was like Sophie’s Choice, but not so much now.   I choose health.

I feel like there is more that I could, or should, say, but I’ll stop here.  By last blog was practically a novel, so if you want to know anything else, post a comment or question!

As food for thought, I leave you with this article.  It’s about chronic illness, but applicable, and insightful, nonetheless: “Chronic Illness and the Academic Career.”  Worth a read for anyone in academia: faculty, staff, administrators.

* I could not find data for faculty.  I supposed I could work harder to find it… but I won’t.  Also, according to the AAUP “only 42 percent of all full-time faculty members are women“.  Another source state that, in 1999, 14% of faculty were of color.  Not sure how much these figures have changed, but I’m including them for reference.