POV: Higher Ed Institutions Would Benefit from Hiring More Faculty and Staff with Disabilities
“We owe it to our students to hire more people with disabilities,” BU faculty member says
“As a person with a disability, this course was the first time I felt like I belonged in academia. I’ve been a BU student for almost two years, but it wasn’t until this course that I began to identify with the school. The sense of community felt is largely due to inclusive curriculum and exploring relevant issues to the world around me…. Disability, race, and gender can and should be represented and explored in more areas in academia, not just their specific niches (i.e., African American studies or disability studies). This class really hit that mark, enriching my perspectives on the world around me.”
The student who penned these words was enrolled in a large upper-level writing course, and he felt a sense of belonging in part because I included writers with disabilities on our syllabus. As a student with a disability, he is far from alone. Nationally, 19 percent of undergraduates and 7 to 8 percent of graduate students report that they have a disability. In the last five years, and in line with national trends, the number of students who have requested services from BU’s Disability & Access Services has dramatically increased, from 835 in 2017 to 1,070 in 2021. The heterogeneity of this group—with a mix of students who are neurodivergent, have sensory or medical concerns, and other diagnoses—suggests their diverse needs, as well as the multifaceted opportunities we have to teach, advise, and engage them.
Like all students, those with disabilities benefit from a curriculum that speaks to their experiences, access to opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, and faculty and staff who look like them or may be uniquely qualified to understand them. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, so it is a good time to ponder at least one of these concerns, or why institutions of higher education would benefit from hiring more faculty and staff with disabilities.
As a faculty member, I believe we owe it to our students to hire more people with disabilities (PWD). We owe it to the young man who wrote the words above, but we also owe it to all our students. Over 22 percent of Americans have a disability, but only 4 percent of faculty members do, according to the National Center for College Students with Disabilities. We have no national statistics on staff. This means a wide swath of students may never interact with faculty and staff who may well be uniquely qualified to engage them. It means all our students are not benefiting from the intellectual and social capital PWD bring to any discipline or pursuit, and it means we are not preparing students to interact in an increasingly disabling country and world.
The reason institutions of higher education do not count more faculty and staff with disabilities among their ranks is not because people do not report their disabilities, although some do not. Nor is it because PWD require special accommodations; most do not. According to the US Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy, citing the Job Accommodation Network, most employees with disability do not require accommodations to perform their jobs; 50 percent of accommodations cost nothing to make, and the remainder typically cost $500. PWD also have been shown to have a lower absentee rate, stay on the job longer, and receive higher than average job performance reviews. So what is the problem?
According to a Cornell University study, the largest barrier to hiring faculty and staff with disabilities is the “discriminatory or stereotyping attitudes” in higher education. In addition to these attitudinal barriers, PWD encounter problems with workplace culture, environment, and policies. Indeed, once they are hired, 15 percent of faculty and staff with disabilities say they face discrimination, harassment, and ableism in the workplace.
Many of these barriers are related to systemic oppression, and higher education is well poised to help ameliorate them. But for now, and mindful of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, institutions of higher education can do their part by simply examining their own hiring and retention practices. Although the resources below are far from exhaustive, I hope they begin the conversation.
- Report: Accommodating Faculty Members Who Have Disabilities (American Association of University Professors)
- Disability and Hiring: Guidelines for Departmental Search Committees (Modern Language Association)
- Wanted: Disabled Faculty Members (Inside Higher Ed)
- New Program to Increase Advancement of Women with Disabilities in STEM Faculty Careers (Access Computing)
- A Call to Professors with Invisible Disabilities (Association of American Colleges & Universities)
- Employers Embracing Employees with Disabilities (RespectAbility)
Megan Sullivan is a College of General Studies associate professor of rhetoric. She is cochair of BU’s Inclusive Pedagogy Initiative Working Group, is on the leadership committee of Staff and Faculty Extend Boston University Disability Support (SAFEBUDS), which seeks to empower BU faculty and staff to advocate for resources and support, and is also assistant provost for academic assessment ad interim. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.