One of the few positive things to come out of the pandemic, on some campuses, is a careful rethinking of various ADA policies. In March 2020, when the pandemic first announced itself in the US and everyone rushed to move their classes onto Zoom or some other distance learning platform, I was too consumed with terror to really process what was happening. I just knew that, as a severely immunocompromised person, a pandemic virus that was killing people was not good news. Even worse, we had no real idea how it was spreading. I had, thankfully, been following the news of this frightening virus and stocked up on the basics, including plenty of toilet paper, before the rush. I did not leave my house until late May, when I had to visit a dentist and an eye doctor. It was such a terrifying period of time, and difficult because I lived alone and did not really feel comfortable asking friends to risk their lives to do errands for me.
By June, it was pretty clear that the pandemic was not going to be gone by fall. I knew I would need to teach online at least in the fall. I discussed the situation with a couple of faculty on our Faculty Council, noting that it would be important to create an accommodations process that did not depend on deans and chairs. And, indeed, that is what happened. The process involved only our ADA office. In my case, they had all of my paperwork and knew that I needed the accommodation. Easy peasy for once. Likewise, it was straightforward for other faculty and staff who had been able to work without accommodations despite taking immunosuppressants or having severe asthma, diabetes, etc. Now, facing a respiratory virus that was especially bad for anyone who had a chronic health condition, more faculty needed accommodations.
I found it interesting that our administration was surprised by the number of medical accommodations that were granted. To me, it wasn’t a surprise at all. Although by that time I had been “outed” thanks to severe Addison’s, I was able to function fine without accommodations despite taking a serious immunosuppressive medication. I knew that there were a lot of others out there in the UT community who were like me; or who quietly dealt with other chronic illnesses. Covid made our “invisible” disability very, very visible. I imagine that, for some, that was an uncomfortable feeling, as it had been for me when I no longer “looked fine.”
It is my fervant hope that UT retains this process for approving disability accommodations. It is likewise my hope that any institution that involves anyone except HR staff changes their process to protect the privacy of the faculty or staff member as much as possible. I have frankly never understood why my dean or chair should be involved in determining what accommodations I do or don’t get. This isn’t a game. When I ask for an accommodation and provide documentation, I need the accommodation. I can understand consulting a College HR person if a particular accommodation seems exceptionally difficult to provide.
But, in general, requested accommodations are pretty basic. They should not be open to negotiation, much less denial by a Dean or Chair. In particular, Chairs are not necessarily aware of ADA law. They may not understand that a conversation that should be informative is not an opportunity for negotiation. In the same way that Chairs are expected to cooperate with UT procedures when a colleague announces that they need to use UT’s version of maternity leave, they should be expected to cooperate with whatever accommodations that the ADA office has determined are medically necessary. If a Chair wants to argue that an accommodation is unduly burdensome, have a process in place for them to do so while also allowing the faculty/staff member to respond. I have yet to hear of any faculty member asking for an outrageous accommodation (eg, I must teach my classes between 9 pm-midnight). The burden of proof, once an accommodation is determined to be medically necessary, is on the Chair, not the disabled person.
There is another reason to have a policy that does not involve Deans or Chairs (aka “the academic side” of the institution). These people are constantly in positions to evaluate their faculty for a range of different things, from salary raises to research leaves to promotion. I suspect that most people with a disability eventually feel compelled to let their colleagues know, if only to explain flares or other complications. Those colleagues may well serve as Chair at some point. But it should always be the choice of the faculty/staff member to share their disability(ies) with others. It should not be forced on them by a process. I wish I could deny that people treat disabled individuals as less worthy, but they do. I know this because I have lived on both sides of the line. Biases exist, even if we wish they didn’t. Chairs worry that a disabled colleague will be unreliable or will need to be replaced partway through a semester. They might worry that they will require expensive special equipment that comes out of the department’s budget.
While few will admit to their biases, the fact remains that disabled individuals are seen as, well, less able to do the job than temporarily able-bodied individuals. I think attitudes are changing and there is more discussion of ableism these days. But if you need some reassurance that ableism is alive and well, read the comments on any article about immunocompromised people and Covid. Just yesterday, I sat in my dentist’s chair as he talked about a receptionist he had hired years ago without knowing that she was deaf (but wore hearing aids). I was in that helpless position of being unable to speak as he went on about how he had to let her go because she had trouble talking on the phone and hearing people come into the office at the same time. This all happened decades ago, but his tone made it clear that he thought a hearing disabled person was unsuited to being a receptionist. As soon as I could, I nearly shouted that it would not be very difficult to accommodate that person these days. The strangest part about the whole scene: he knows that I have several ugly chronic illnesses. But somehow I don’t register as disabled to him, especially now.
So, for anyone who has made it this far, please learn your campus’s ADA procedures. Please advocate for a procedure that involves only HR (aka “the non-academic side of campus”). The academic side of campus will grumble from time to time. I am sure this is why UT’s current process looks the way it does. The problem is, those grumbles cannot matter. I simply do not care if a Chair is ignorant enough to complain about implementing an accommodation. It is not their business to know a colleague’s disability unless that colleague wants to share. As faculty, we are not told students’ disabilities. We are told their accommodations. There is a process in place if an accommodation is difficult to implement in our class. At no time are we told the students’ diagonoses. I often have to start my conversations with students with the statement that their diagnosis is their business and it is my job to accommodate them. They are shocked that I am so amenable. This tells me something about my fellow faculty. [If you are faculty, please do not be an asshole to your disabled students. They will appreciate it a lot.]
There is no reason that an ADA admin should have to chat about staff or faculty accommodations. Send a letter and leave it to them to file a complaint. I feel this especially strongly when it comes to accommodations for mental health diagnoses. I want my fellow faculty and campus staff to feel enabled to ask for what they need to excel at their job. Often, we know, it’s not a lot; and we are learning that our jobs are a lot more flexible than some believed. I also want the disabled members of the campus community to feel supported, to feel like the institution’s systems are in place to help rather than hinder someone’s career trajectory.
On the whole, I know that Chairs, Deans, and other administrators are good willed. They try to check their ableism. In my own career, I have had six different chairs. Five of them would have been fine to deal with at the height of my health issues. Unfortunately, they weren’t my chairs; and my chair abused a process that was intended to be collaborative to treat it like some kind of negotiation. There was not a back up process in place for me to overturn the decision. This meant that I was denied a medically necessary accommodation at a time when I desperately needed it. Without it, I simply lacked the stamina to do my job as it was traditionally done. I was still able to do my job, just in a different way. By not giving me that option, I ended up much sicker than I ever needed to get. It deprived me not only of the year when I grew even more sick but also made it that much more difficult to claw my way back to stable health.
I will never forget the words of the ADA officer. We had been going back and forth over email— and, at the time, I was quite ill so even this took a ton of energy from me. I couldn’t believe that someone could just decide on a whim not to implement a medically necessary accommodation that was completely reasonable. And yet, apparantly, my workplace allowed that. Finally, having reached the end of the conversation, s/he wrote something like “well, you can always sue.” At the time, I took it as a dismissal and quite rude. Who knows how it was really meant but, in fact, that is exactly what I did. And I did it so that, ideally, processes would change and there would never be another person in my situation. Covid has forced a lot of changes and I hope that one that sticks is letting faculty work directly with HR, with minimal involvement of “the academic side.” Yes, the chairs and deans will grumble. I have a document in which my former dean and an associate dean declare that THEY should be the ones to decide what I can and can’t do regarding accommodations. It’s pretty special. But the very fact that two experienced deans would say something so obscene is exactly why they have no business being involved in the process of deciding accommodations.