As assistant professors who work in disability studies, we’ve all had some version of the following experience.
This particular case happened to Tara:
A faculty member — let’s call him "Jeff" — stopped by my office to make conversation. He’d heard I do work in disability studies, and I could see he was primed to offer up his most frustrating disability anecdote. He leaned against the door frame and began to explain "this one student" he just didn’t know what to do with. The student brought him a document detailing accommodations for unexpected absences, and Jeff was concerned. "Aren’t we supposed to offer students a level playing field?" he asked. "I know she could get herself to class if she really wanted to. Everyone has anxiety. How do I know she’s not faking it?"
We live in a time where the discourse of diversity is practically a bumper sticker found in faculty orientation packets. Yet the presence of disabled students in our classrooms is too often presented as an anomalous burden, a challenge to be met. Its overarching goal? To normalize disabilities by setting them up as simple problems to be easily overcome.
We saw a good example of that in a recent advice essay in The Chronicle — "Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk," by Gail A Hornstein. While her efforts as an ally of disability rights are certainly appreciated, her rhetoric — labeling disability conversations with students as something to dread — is dangerous, not just for the students it minimizes, but for the "advice" it offers to faculty members.
Disability activists and theorists such as Simi Linton and Margaret Price have been working for years to combat and dispel calcified and problematic tropes about disability. Unfortunately, Hornstein’s essay served to perpetuate them: the myth of overcoming disability (or what Hornstein labels "resiliency"), the trope of the able-savior, and the notion that disability itself is inherently deficient and, thus, runs contrary to academic life. We’d like to explore each of those in turn and then share some of our own suggestions for handling "the accommodations talk."
The overcoming myth. Hornstein advises faculty members to "encourage thoughtful coping skills and resilience so that, when it’s possible, they [disabled students] can manage on their own." That statement suggests that disabilities can and should be overcome with sheer resilience on the part of the student and without the legally guaranteed accommodation. It’s a variation of the old bootstraps tune: "If you would just try a little bit harder."
Not only does that message put the burden of access on the student, it also positions the accommodations talk as a moment to wean students off their accommodations. Such images are common in disability representations: the individual with a disability is presented as the "problem" and the simple resolution is that they "overcome" the disability. In other words, just make it go away, like magic!
The overcoming narrative is widely consumed and definitely palatable. After all, who doesn’t like a happy ending? But this myth has a harmful effect on disabled students and reinforces an ableist culture to faculty members, making it all the more difficult for students to disclose their particular situation. The expectation to always overcome, to always appear resilient — rather than seek accommodation — creates an even more hostile environment for an already vulnerable population. In short, they are often ostracized by the very same places that claim to be so welcoming.
The able-savior trope. In her essay, Hornstein also seems to suggest that the instructor knows more about accommodating the student’s disability than the student. Unfortunately, many faculty stories about disability erase or render invisible the experiential knowledge that students already bring to the table.
A 2007 essay on this same subject (published in College English by Ann Jurecic on "Neurodiversity") led Paul Heilker, a disability studies scholar, to note that the most important voices we need to be listening to are the students themselves instead of "speaking for, through, and about" them.
Likewise, Hornstein positions herself as the benevolent gatekeeper of access. The idea that instructors should help students be more "thoughtful" and "manage on their own" disregards the significance of accommodations and perpetuates the attitude that the burden of access is something individual students can carry on their own — with just a little bit of elbow grease.
Disabled students often know a great deal about how they learn and what accommodations are helpful. And even when/if they do not, we’ve found it more practical to work with them rather than simply override their requests (which is illegal anyway).
In her essay, Hornstein reported that the student, "Lee" — who had initially come to the professor’s office with an accommodations form in hand — ended up doing well in the class and had never come back to Hornstein’s office seeking help or advice.
That is not the success story that Hornstein assumes it is. It seems more likely that "Lee" learned that her only choice was to struggle on without help from her professor — and face the strong possibility that she would have to take a leave from school, or drop out. In fact, 64 percent of college students who drop out do so for mental-health reasons, according to a 2012 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The myth of disability as deficiency. Perhaps the most dangerous myth is the idea that disability itself is inherently a bad thing.
This myth is the most insidious of all because it is presented as a matter of common sense: that disability is something to dread. Now imagine students who see disability as a part of their identity. In what position does Hornstein’s rhetoric place their sense of themselves? Not a very good one. Disability appears as an uncommon phenomenon that exists in direct conflict with academic achievement.
We think that disability can be generative. Disability can positively reshape the conditions and spaces in which students learn and can work to generate new ideas, new understandings. We also believe that disability is an identity marker for many students and, as such, deserves respect, dignity, and acknowledgement of value. If institutions and instructors want to make good on their promises of valuing diversity, avoiding the deficiency myth is paramount.
Additionally, when disability is presented as something bad that must be overcome, a hierarchy of disabilities tends to emerge. Physical or overt disabilities are seen as more "real" or "deserving" of accommodation than invisible, undisclosed, or psychiatric disabilities and conditions. Such rankings help no one, and they make it all the more difficult for students with mental illness to disclose and seek accommodation.
A disability hierarchy also creates a slippery slope toward an even more entrenched ableist society. Part of the cultural discomfort with disability is the normalization of the able-bodied — an attitude that rejects difference, disabilities, and individuality by creating a safely sanitized border wall between what’s perceived to be "normal" and what’s not.
Those of us in disability studies and in disability communities have serious concerns with advice that urges students to overcome their disabilities or that attempts to normalize them. "It’s also our responsibility as faculty members to uphold educational standards," Hornstein writes, "to ensure fairness, and to model resourcefulness for all students, no matter their background or life challenges." The implicit message behind that statement is that students with disabilities do not "uphold educational standards" and that to make a course more accessible will not "ensure fairness."
In short, Hornstein’s essay reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of accommodation and access, and reinforces the trope that disability is unacceptable, defective, and deficient.
Toward validation. The first responsibility of higher education is to educate — not condemn students requesting their legal right of access and accommodation. Thus, the accommodation-letter conversation should focus on what accessibility can be for that student.
Discuss what other accommodations the student has found successful. Offer suggestions on how the student can check-in about access and progress throughout the semester — not just in one talk during the first week of class. These conversations should not be an effort to dig deep into the student’s disability and personal life, or an effort to cure the student.
Disability is not something to dread. It just is. We, too, should recognize, value, and (automatically) validate the experiential knowledge of students. If we take this stance as faculty members, we come to realize that anyone with any difference provides another perspective from which to learn and approach a problem from another direction. These differences allow for growth in student learning and for growth as teachers.
To that end, plenty of resources are available online. Faculty members can find suggestions for how to work accessibility statements on a syllabus here. And readers can click here for a hyperlinked set of disability resources.
We need to adjust our classroom environments away from ableist structures and shuck our own ableist baggage so that when we encounter disability in our classrooms, we are filled with possibility, not dread.
Tara Wood is an assistant professor of English and writing-program administrator at Rockford University. Craig A. Meyer is an assistant professor of English and dual-enrollment coordinator at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. Dev Bose is an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona and assistant director of online writing and accessibility. This essay was written with the support and insight of 26 other scholars in disability studies.