Being Disabled And Unconditionally Rejected in Higher Education

At some institutions of higher education, faculty who are not perfectly able-bodied are effectively barred from even stepping on campus. Such practices—on top of the already-difficult job market and added to the ubiquity of microaggressions directed toward us crip people—automatically move some of society’s most educated people into the stack of unconditionally rejected applicants.        

In addition to the requisite educational requirements for a given position, some colleges demand applicants possess no bodily “defects.” For example, Brazosport College specifically requires that its faculty and staff meet certain “Physical Demands.” The ability to hear, see, sit, stand, talk, and walk are required. Potential faculty, according to job advertisements since 2011, must also have able-bodied fine dexterity and the ability to carry and to reach. Specific positions often add to these the ability to drive, to lift, to kneel, to crouch, to twist, to climb, to run, to balance, and other such indicators of able-bodied privilege.

Midland College requires that professors have the physical ability to lift 25 pounds, in addition to the ability to walk and stand.

Such language shows a complete disregard for the Americans with Disabilities Act’s “reasonable accommodations” and for the actual skills needed to be a professor. This problem is alarmingly somewhat common in higher education. Historian David M. Perry has previously written about the practice here and here.

(Even student peer recruiters at Brazosport College, according to the May 2017 job posting, must meet most of these same basic physical requirements, including walking and hearing. Such requirements effectively mean that disabled students too are unconditionally rejected. They cannot serve as peer recruiters. Students who need a wheelchair for mobility, for example, will never have an opportunity to be a peer recruiter—another clear violation of the ADA.)

While such attitudes and philosophies suggest that people either have or do not have the ability to hear or see, for example, people with differences that influence their day-to-day life know well how complex the situation actually is. We also know that having disabilities adds complications to the application and interview process. Most days, I can walk but not every day. There are days when I can walk but only very slowly. No matter what, I always have to wear an expensive custom-made brace to walk, and it breaks sometimes. Additionally, because of physical limitations and the fourteen medications I take, my ability to travel (or move) is much more limited than most in academia. (For more, on my struggles with Neurofibromatosis read here.) 

Brazosport College, Midland College, and institutions with similar practices also perpetuate notions of a world where there are people who are disabled and who are not disabled. In this imagined (and false) world, people who are disabled do not belong. In actuality, there is no normative body. Able-bodiedness is a social construct. People are all vastly different. Definitions matter. What does walking or hearing actually mean? What amount of perfection is actually required? What if an applicant can stand for 15 minutes but not 30 minutes? What if an applicant needs glasses or hearing aids? Are they rejected?

What about the applicant who does not drive? I know of one administrator in higher education who is unable to drive due to medical conditions and has no problem doing their job. They carpool with other people to work.

Think about the potential applicant who can instruct their classes perfectly, who has outstanding references, and who has research experience, but also does not have eyes (or legs). They are also unconditionally rejected by such job postings.

In short, none of the “Physical Demands” required of professors at Brazosport College are necessary to effectively teach. Technology—whether in the form of online teaching, text-to-speech and voice recognition software, virtual meetings, or an old-fashioned wheelchair—can effectively and powerfully overcome human differences in ability. And what about common decency?

Even people who can currently meet such absolute standards of able-bodiedness will not always have that exact same level of privilege. As disability advocate Maria R. Palacios posted on Facebook, in a slightly different context:

Dear Non-Disabled Politicians: One day you will also be disabled. Not a curse. Just fact. Disability, simply is, part of life.

Herein lies another important concern when employers include so many clearly unnecessary (and illegal) physical requirements: It gives employers some more leeway to legally dismiss someone. Say a person accepts a job that requires being able to lift 50 pounds. This person teaches psychology and never actually needs to lift 50 pounds in 15 years of employment. Then one day this person must have an arm amputated after an illness. This person cannot move a 50-pound box of books when asked and because of this, the college dismisses them for failing to meet basic job requirements. This scenario is a bit extreme, potentially, but illustrates the point.

The implications of having such able-bodied requirements at colleges also include that employees will not reveal their disabilities. Such institutions perpetuate the belief that disabled people should not be seen, that disabled people are a problem, and that being disabled is something to be ashamed of. Moreover, students will not see professors who look like them. Students will not have the experience of having a deaf professor or a professor who is partially paralyzed, for example. We know from research that students need to see people in positions of authority who look like them and who identify as they do. Too, all students benefit from being around faculty who are different from them, who subvert the normative by even existing, and who challenge students’ ideas related to privilege and oppression and to intersectionality and positionality.

Too often, historically speaking, colleges and universities have had such able-bodied requirements but just did not put them in writing. It was simply implied that such people were excluded. De-coded, such requirements also tend to prefer those with other forms of privilege: Men who have money and Whiteness receive better medical care, after all, and will be less likely to have any disability, for example. Colleges, then and now, sometimes have misinformed worries that someone with known differences will cost the department money or will call in sick more often.

The “positive” thing, if there can be one in such circumstances, is that we know, historically speaking again, when such requirements become officially written, they are being challenged by advocates for inclusion.

Additionally, consider the sharp contrasts with jobs ads that specifically seek diversity, including those with disabilities. For example, the University of Houston’s job postings include:

The University of Houston is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Institution. Minorities, women, veterans, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply.

UH also has policies that specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender and sexuality. Language matters. Inclusion of diverse bodies and abilities has an immeasurably positive impact across-the-board and continually pushes people toward open-mindedness.

Institutions of higher education need to always commit themselves to ensuring equitable opportunities for all and to remembering that not everyone has two arms and two legs that work properly (whatever “properly” means), not everyone can hear or see, not everyone can drive, not everyone can stand, twist, or bend, and not everyone needs to. Although cliché, the world would be a boring place if we were all able-bodied. People with disabilities—people who are differently abled—help us see the world in new and in more complex ways. Institutions should always remember that many of the accommodations we need—such as classroom changes—are simple. Often, too, we function differently but just fine—when, like me, you’ve been in pain more days than not, you know how to adapt and thrive seamlessly. 

If certain physical requirements are genuinely necessary and accommodations are not possible, this should be clearly explained in the job posting, or better still, the position should be reconstructed because professors are hired for their mental fitness, not their ability to demonstrate physical fitness.  

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda