08 September 2014

What Professors Do: Disability

Last week, this incredibly powerful essay crossed my radar: Katie Murphy writes about being a disabled student and having to ask all of her professors for accommodations during the first week of the semester.

It resonated with me in two important ways. One, I hate having to ask for accommodations, as a professional or as a human being.

Excuse me, your cigarette [that you're smoking under that no smoking sign] is triggering my asthma, would you mind putting it out? Usually, those requests get met with hostility from the smoker and silence from everyone else in the vicinity.

As a professor, I don't really get sick days. I'm expected to teach my classes. All of them. And if for some reason I can't make it to class, I'm expected to arrange for coverage.

This is one thing if I know I will be at a conference during a class meeting: I can plan an exercise that the students can do in class under the supervision of another faculty member. But if I get sick, I can't expect a colleague to be able to show up and teach what I was going to teach that day. Mostly because small departments depend upon having faculty in different fields to teach a wide range of courses, and much of the time, there's no one in my department who could just do what I do.

So I've made arrangements, after discussions with my department chair and the head of human resources, to teach on line at times when I can't breathe well enough to stand in front of students while talking for 75 minutes. Or three hours.  Or sit in front of them while managing a class.

These days, I get that sick once or twice a semester. The acute phase is usually over in three or four days, but it then takes three or four weeks to get back to full energy levels.

This means that my syllabus includes information to the effect that because of documented chronic illness, class may have to be moved on line at some point during the semester. And I'm told I have to point this out to my students on the first day of class in case someone should be uncomfortable with it and decide as a result to switch into a different section.

I hate having to do this.

I loathe having to paste this boilerplate into my syllabus every semester; I loathe having to ask my doctor each year for an updated letter confirming medical recommendation for the accommodation; I loathe having to hand it over to my department chair; and I really hate having to talk about it with my students.

In her blog post, Murphy does a truly great job of articulating the emotions that go along with this:
I have to engage in a little mental boxing match with self-doubt: “Do I really even need those accommodations? I could get by without them, right? I did before.” And guilt: “I’m wasting my professor’s time. They’re going to hate me. I’m such an inconvenience.” And shame: “A good student and a stronger person wouldn’t need all this stuff.
... Disabled people grow up learning to hate themselves, to hate their disability, because the world we live in hates disability for no logical reason. And sometimes the best way to fight that kind of illogic is with more illogic.
Self-doubt, guilt, shame, self-loathing. Check, check, check.

Except I fear that my supervisors AND my students are going to hate me, feel inconvenienced, suspect I might be malingering and really don't need these accommodations.

Murphy goes on to make a really excellent case for getting beyond those feelings. If you didn't already click through, go do it now, and read. You might even weep.

The second way that Murphy's essay resonated with me? I felt shame of a completely different kind. Shame that it never occurred to me that even though I know this burden, I have never seen it from a student's point of view. And so in my syllabus I have the standard boiler-plate about accommodations not being possible without documentation, see me in the first week of the semester, blah blah blah.

When I return from sabbatical and teach again, I will be removing that boilerplate, replacing it with something human, encouraging my colleagues to read Murphy's essay, and requesting that as a department we come up with better boilerplate.

And I will go on trying to conquer the self-loathing. That's harder, though.