As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I have made use of ADA accommodations for the last decade or so. In the beginning, when my health was still relatively good, I did not need extensive accommodations. Indeed, many of the accommodations were not used and all of them were things that all faculty generally get if they request them (e.g. teaching two days/week; an office on the ground floor of my building). When I was working outside of the department, I put in a ridiculous number of hours but, in general, was able to work around the growing burden of my diagnoses. Apart from my department chair, few people knew that I had disability accommodations and nobody saw me as disabled (having invisible disabilities can be both a boon and a burden).
Once I returned to the Classics Department and full time teaching in Summer 2015, I knew I would need to update my accommodations to reflect my current needs. By this time, UT had completely changed not just the people who handled disability accommodations but also the process. Previously, I had met with the person who handled ADA accommodations for faculty and staff. My doctors filled out a form explaining my need for certain accommodations. I also discussed my situation with this person. She was very helpful in explaining to me how everything worked. I was a novice to the world of disability and really had no idea how to articulate the ways that my chronic illness impacted my daily life. I lacked the vocabulary that comes from years of managing disabilities. Once we agreed on a small and very minor set of accommodations, the ADA person met with my department chair and, I suppose, explained the accommodations to him. I do not know what would have happened if he had refused to implement these medically necessary accommodations. Like most department chairs around the university, he saw his job as enabling and supporting good work from his supervisees.
By Fall 2015, UT had completely reimagined several HR offices and also moved staff around (and, in the last year or so, they seem to have done another overhaul). The new head of ADA was a vice provost with a background in higher education leadership. She had a deputy, recently hired in 2015, but I have worked only once with her deputy. We met and I discussed my needs and the situation. For reasons that remain unclear to me, the process of getting accommodations in place dragged on for months and required several in person meetings. Only after talking to several senior administrators (including Janet Dukerich) did the ADA point person go to Lesley Dean-Jones. During my meetings, the ADA people emphasized their desire for the process to be collaborative yet, at no time, was I part of their meetings. This meant that, among other things, I have no idea what Lesley Dean-Jones did or did not say in response to my requested accommodations. I also don’t know what the ADA people said (this will matter later on).
I was somewhat surprised that, in my meeting with the ADA people after they met with Dean-Jones, I was told that there was resistence to various things. The one that sticks in my mind was an accommodation to be excused from after hours work (e.g. going to dinner with a job candidate). My chair insisted that this was an excuse to get out of work and seemed not to grasp that I was perfectly willing to do the work — but during regular business hours. I could take a visitor to lunch, for instance.
My chair’s decision to see these accommodation requests as an excuse to do less work has not aged well, especially this one. The department now has several members who are parents of young children. For several years now, all of them have been excused from doing anything after 5 pm; and, in fact, the department chair has moved meetings and lectures to earlier in the day to make it more convenient for the parents and less convenient for those who do not need to get to daycare by 5 pm. In other words, she freely cooperated with parents, who needed an “accommodation” to balance the demands of work and children; but griped about doing it for me. I doubt she has ever accused any of the parents of having children just to get out of various activities.
I know there was at least griping about more of the requests but, in the end, it is my recollection that the accommodations were put in place with some minimal revision. I was grateful to have the updated accommodations but not very happy with the process. It was not at all collaborative. As soon as Dean-Jones started to complain, the meeting should have stopped and I should have been involved. The ADA people couldn’t speak for me nor did they particularly understand how to push back on the complaining and expose it for what it was — an attempt to obstruct my success.
When I have a student who has ADA accommodations, I receive a list of their accommodations and am told to implement them. I cannot ask about their specific diagnosis. I cannot complain that their accommodations make more work for me (even when they sometimes do). My job is to implement the accommodations, period. If they have an accommodation that might interfere with an important part of their course grade, I can talk to their coordinator. The one time this was necessary, their coordinator worked with me to come up with an alternative assignment. In 20 years of teaching, I have never refused to implement an accommodation, nor would I be able to.
I do not understand why they same protections do not extend to staff and faculty. I never should have had to discuss any aspect of my medical history with any department chair. This is a complicated issue because, often, we have friends in the department and might even be friends with our chair. But I have learned the hard way to be completely silent as much as possible about any medical conditions. Work only with HR. I understand well that it can be difficult to not share this kind of information with friends at work but, speaking from my own experience and that of others, it is best to remember that your colleagues/professors are colleagues who also get to vote on any number of things that pertain to your professional life. Save the specific details for discussions with HR.
It is very sad to say, but the minute your colleagues hear that you have a chronic, debilitating illness, they will see you as a burden instead of an asset. They won’t understand all that you will bring to the table, in every aspect of your job, thanks to your experience in the Kingdom of the Ill. Sure, you might have very close friends that you can trust. But, as a default, it is best to keep medical information to yourself unless it is an acute illness.
In Fall 2015, I was very surprised by how complicated the process of securing very basic and medically necessary accommodations was. I was especially surprised that my chair had, quite obviously, been difficult to work with and expressed her unwillingness to collaborate repeatedly. But, of course, the process is set up so that I only know what I was told by the ADA people. Their report to me, I suspect, left out the extent to which they had to push back on Dean-Jones. But they said enough to make it clear that she was not going to play nicely. Back in 2015, I looked good. I was fit, I dressed nicely, I did my hair and nails. I have what are called “invisible” disabilities. I can look great while being seriously incapicitated. I’d heard rumors that “people” thought I was faking illness in order to get out of work and, bizarrely, to make my chair’s job harder. I had known before that my chair wasn’t a big fan of ADA accommodations, and that she tended to see them as ways for students to get a leg up on others. I never imagined that she would question my disabilities and need for accommodations. I also never imagined that there would be a system that permitted her to dissent on things that she already permitted to others (in the sense that they were/are not forced to attend after hours events).
The whole experience was very odd and uncomfortable. Nothing I was asking for was excessive or even required anyone else’s involvement. I could not understand the objections except as evidence that my chair was not willing to do part of her job (supporting my career success); and believed that I was trying to pull a fast one when I was simply getting some things in writing. I had never said I would never attend another event after 5 pm — and, in fact, I did attend them as I was able to. It was very strange to me to have someone question my motives over something that was very well documented; and to suggest that I was manipulating a system to my advantage when, in reality, I asked for the bare minimum to function.
By the time the process of getting new accommodations in place was completed, I was becoming very unwell. I did not especially want to take any additional medical leave but I had no choice. Once again, my chair seemed to think I was up to something nefarious. She never spoke to me about my medical leave, but clearly thought that it was unnecessary. She had no idea that I was flat in bed, vomiting; much too sick to be up to anything.