Professors fear discrimination, showing “weakness” if they disclose having a disability.
It confirmed everything English lecturer Travis Lau believed about academia, yet he struggled to hide the shock on his face as the question echoed through his mind.
“Is the disability that bad?”
It was completely illegal, completely inappropriate but, he said in recalling the event from several years ago, entirely unsurprising.
Providing personal anecdotes might help the hiring committee understand how his scoliosis impacts his life, but Lau said those anecdotes could also be detrimental to his chances at receiving the position if they misinterpreted his openness as inability to do the job.
Lau stared back at the committee members before him and answered the question the Americans with Disabilities Act bars employers from asking.
“I was like, ‘I think it’s really evident from my materials and the research I have that I’m continuing to work all the time,’” Lau said.
Lau, now a postdoctoral teaching fellow at UT, said while this specific instance didn’t occur during his interview at UT, situations like these happen frequently – though many aren’t as blunt.
Lau said, the fault does not fall solely on academic institutions, which are a product of their societies and may boost stigmas as a result.
But because of this, disabled scholars are sometimes hesitant to ask for accommodations, Lau and other UT professors said. And when they do, the system can be difficult to navigate.
Disclosing a disability to superiors
Lau has scoliosis, a condition resulting in a curved spine, which causes him back pain on a daily basis and brain fog, a symptom that makes it hard to think or focus at times.
During graduate school, Lau was advised by mentors not to disclose it.
“It was often talked about as best practices or advice,” Lau said. “It was never like, ‘Oh, your disability is a problem.’ Mentors framed it as, ‘Oh, it might be misunderstood.’”
Now, the advice comes from colleagues, most of whom tell him disclosure can be dangerous and fear it will mark him as needy.
While Lau said he understands their recommendations are well-intentioned, they remind him of how unwilling people are to fight to change the system.
“Rather than say we should have people identifying more often and forcing selection committees to deal with it, it’s often like, ‘It’s a s----- market already. So, don’t give them any other reasons to eliminate you as a candidate,’” Lau said.
Under the ADA, employers are required to provide accommodations, which are modifications to a job or work environment that allows disabled employees to do their jobs.
The law doesn’t require employees to disclose their disability. But if accommodations are needed, individuals are sometimes expected to find that information themselves or through their superiors. Then, they must provide to the University medical documentation confirming their disability, UT’s ADA coordinator Jennifer Maedgen said.
Information about employee’s medical information is confidential, Maedgen said, and any discussions with superiors about accommodations only include how disability is affecting a faculty member’s work, not the disability itself.
According to data from UT, eight out of 3,463 faculty members reported having a disability to the University on their hiring form. Data for how many professors currently receive accommodations is unavailable, UT officials said.
However, 1 in 4 U.S. adults report having a disability, according to a 2018 Morbidity and Mortality Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
UT professors said data from institutions may be inaccurate because of stigmas associated with disclosure, the nuance in which disability is defined and the paperwork sometimes required to receive a diagnosis.
To receive accommodations, Maedgen said requests are evaluated based on what is deemed “reasonable” under ADA. Reasonable accommodations are alterations that allow professors to perform their jobs but not change core job functions, Maedgen said.
For example, teaching at certain times of the day or asking to teach in specific buildings would be “reasonable,” while not teaching at all would not be, Maedgen said.
Despite identifying as disabled on his application and being outspoken about it, Lau did not know a path to accommodations existed until almost a year after being hired.
“It’s not like the department is trying to withhold information,” Lau said. “I think their logic is, ‘Well, he seems to be doing just fine. If he really needs accommodations, he’ll reach out to us.’”
Maedgen said information on the process is available through referrals from the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, Human Resources, word of mouth, presentations by the University and online.
UT disability studies coordinator Nick Winges-Yanez said UT isn’t the only institution that places the responsibility on disabled professors to find information about accommodations, and that a more transparent process could help faculty feel more comfortable coming forward.
Winges-Yanez said biases against disabled people exist within the larger culture, not just within academia.
“It’s an institutionalized belief in implicit and explicit policies that privileges people who are able-bodied and able-mind as ‘normal,’” Winges-Yanez said.
Last month, Lau began the process to receive accommodations because conversations with another disabled professor convinced him to proceed.
“I’m terrified as a postdoc here, where I’m not in any position of power,” Lau said. “Will that then put me in a dangerous position where the department’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a drain on resources?’”
David Ochsner, College of Liberal Arts director of public affairs, said any questions concerning accommodations have no impact on a faculty member’s position at the University and individual departments, as well as Human Resources, are there for assistance.
“We really want to get the word out that those services are available, and we’re here to help (people),” Ochsner said.
English associate professor Alison Kafer has both physical and mental disabilities and began working with Maedgen after she was hired in January.
She received specialized computer software and an adjustable desk — something she felt more comfortable asking for, since everyone needs one. Kafer has taught at other universities and said understanding what accommodations she needs can make the process easier to navigate. But she said that’s not always something that disabled individuals know.
Even though some of her disabilities are visible, the fear of disclosure and asking for accommodations is still present.
“You’re not disclosing the presence of a disability, but you’re disclosing the effects disability might have on your life, which can then also have its own implications,” Kafer said.
“We’re here. We exist.”
Lau is going back on the job market this fall, where he’ll face the daunting task of finding a new institution where he can continue to teach and research.
And because bias against disabled people isn’t exclusive to UT, Lau knows the process won’t be easy.
“Institutions are a perpetuation of certain cultures,” Lau said. “If we have a pretty terrible cultural environment that doesn’t take disability and accessibility seriously, the institutions are going to do that, (too).”
Though it may be easier for Lau to pass as able-bodied during the hiring process, he said doing so wouldn’t help the case for other disabled people.
“For some people, that’s not a choice. They don’t have an ability to pass,” Lau said. “The fear is that I’ll be exposing a weakness, and, for me, that’s all the more reason to be forthcoming. We’re here. We exist.”
This story has been updated since it was originally published with clarifying information about the accommodations process.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of ADA coordinator Jennifer Maedgen. The Texan regrets this error.