I have been that professor that feels exacerbated and frustrated when that one more thing is asked of me. For instance, the captioning of videos for my classes. I still do not feel that it is my sole responsibility to make my classes accessible, in part because I lack the knowledge and training—but, mostly, the time—to do so. I think that the institution needs to take more responsibility and recognize that we need time and support to develop new skills. Support exists—extra time does not. (Our current model is not sustainable. . . more on that shortly.) But part of this institutional responsibility is mine. I have to shift my perspective about accommodations. I have to understand my own responsibility to make changes that impact these larger systems and structures.
I have been using the opportunity of our academic theme, Disability Visibility, to not only educate our students, but to educate myself. This is one of the privileges and benefits of working in academia—we always have the opportunity to learn alongside our students. In the spring, I will be offering a one-credit class on the topic of Disability Visibility, not as an expert on the subject but as a facilitator in co-creating an environment of learning.
I recently attended the NWSA conference and tried to attend as many panels as possible that dealt with disability. The first session I attended practiced some of the norms of disability accommodation that I do not regularly engage with (for instance, descriptions of the presenter’s physical appearance and the images on the screen and print outs or QR codes for “access copies”). I panicked for a moment. I was scheduled to present in the next time slot and I had not prepared accommodations. Was this the new norm and I was out of the loop? Yes and no.
Only the disability rights-related panels at the NWSA made such accommodations (of the sessions I attended, which were not that many). Such norms are still making their way into academia, even in the most progressive of spaces. At UMA, we have been slowly implementing tools like automatic closed captioning in Zoom and software that rates the accessibility of documents and materials in our BrightSpace courses. Perhaps we have also been assessing the efficacy of our accommodation processes. But I regularly hear from students who feel frustrated and othered by the process, and I hear stories from students whose professors refuse to accept the accommodations that are required of them.
One thing that I learned at NWSA is that I have been practicing many of the suggested techniques for accommodations and for working toward disability rights for as long as I have been teaching. I have developed accommodations for all of my students that have also benefitted me, for instance flexible deadlines. Sometimes these make more work for me, but they also allow me to feel less guilty if I fall behind in grading. (Since I give my students leeway, the least they can do is extend me the same!) By creating this accommodation, I changed the culture of the classroom. I often get emails from students about the struggles of their lives and asking for an extension; it is easy to say: “my deadlines are flexible for just such reasons.”
Through my work over the last year or so, I have also developed a larger understanding of what accommodations are all about. Disability accommodations are not (just) about making academia more accessible for students who live and work with disabilities, they are about transforming a culture of impossible expectations and arbitrary (and insidious) barriers that we are all expected to function within without complaint or recognition.
Two related ideas that came up at a panel at NWSA were sustainability and collective access. Impossible expectations are not sustainable for individuals or for institutions. Impossible expectations lead to burn out and I know that many of my colleagues and students are feeling this, even if only some of us are willing or able to admit it. Collective access means that we need to rethink the bigger picture of what our classrooms, campuses, and curriculum look like. This too can help us to live and work in a sustainable way and can also help us to better care for ourselves and each other.
Can we imagine a world where accommodations don’t exist because we have changed the structures, systems, norms, and expectations of our culture as well as the ways in which we treat each other and the ways we expect to be treated? The short answer is: yes, because we have to.
One of the panels I attended drew from the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore who calls for the creation of “life-affirming institutions.” They argued that we can reimagine and transform academia which is, by design “inherently, intentionally, and iconically ablest.” Building on the idea of “prefigurative politics,” following the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, they argued that “another university is possible” and, in fact, “it is already here.” If we live the world that we want, that we need, then we realize that that world already exists.
We collectively make the present and the future that we want to live in, even when the structures that we work and live within seem impenetrable and inflexible. Our academic theme is an opportunity to shape our institution and bend it toward a better way of teaching and learning for all of us.