DSQ > Summer 2008, Volume 28, No.3

Last winter, I was lecturing a class on the fall of the Western Roman Empire. I had got up from my walker to point to something on my presentation slide. Suddenly, my legs opted to give their own interpretation of the collapse of law and order in the West.

As pedagogical moments go, it wasn't one of my high points. It was the first time it had happened in a classroom; I was embarrassed and thrown off my game. I didn't even manage, after scrambling up from the floor, to link my students' alarm to that of the Roman citizens in Hispania, Gaul and Britain.

But—I tell myself—there's always next time. And I hope and pray that there is.

For new Ph.D.s, first teaching jobs often involve a steep learning curve. They have to find their classroom strengths and weaknesses. Then they must develop strategies for emphasizing the first and improving the second. They have to learn to juggle: to keep their new teaching load airborne, along with all the other demands of life within and without the Ivory Tower.

They must also learn their institution. They need to get a feel for the needs and abilities of their student body. They need to get to know the facilities and resources available to them as teachers. They must learn who to call when the ceiling projector suddenly explodes, and where to go when a student hands in ten pages of a Wikipedia article as their final paper.

It sounds like a doable challenge, doesn't it? After all, these are people who have earned doctorates. But these days, I see two distinct barriers to this alleged doability. The first is that, despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, college and university faculty with disabilities still struggle at many institutions with "tepid" enforcement of accessibility and accommodation requirements.1 This lukewarm commitment to accessibility places disabled instructors at a constant disadvantage in the classroom. The second problem is that the scenario above assumes a stable, tenure-track position. The reality is that such positions are no longer the norm. More and more Ph.D.s are spending multiple years on the tenure-track job market. It is estimated that a majority will never achieve that cherished goal.2

I am both an adjunct instructor and a recent History Ph.D. with a mobility-related disability. I want to talk briefly about both these problems and how I believe they exacerbate each other. And, I want to suggest that, together, these two issues are fostering an academic landscape that is more—rather than less—hostile to people with disabilities.

Faculty with Disabilities

As I graduate student, I took a required course on college teaching. The course was helpful in a number of areas—syllabus design, active learning techniques and soliciting and using student feedback. It didn't, however, cover literally falling down while lecturing. Our physical presence in the classroom is itself part of the teaching process. It can shape how we interact with students, the effectiveness of our lectures, and our ability to use and engage with multimedia materials. For a junior instructor with a disability, part of the pedagogical learning curve is factoring her disability into the classroom equation. She needs to discover if and how her disability has an impact on her teaching. Does fatigue limit her ability to teach two courses back to back? Does a visual impairment keep her from seeing students' raised hands?

Then she has to identify what accommodations will allow her to teach at her best. The solution might be as simple: a schedule change, or a volunteer classroom monitor to identify the students who are raising their hands. It could be something that the instructor can build into her syllabus and implement on her own. In many other cases, however, it will require working through her institution to acquire the resources or accommodations that she needs.

A recent study of university medical faculty has suggested that seeking institutional accommodations remains daunting for professors, whether new or experienced. Fear of institutional reprisals or eliciting prejudice from colleagues keeps some from requesting needed resources or equipment. Here, junior faculty are particularly vulnerable; requests for accommodations may be taken as evidence that they cannot do their jobs as well as able-bodied colleagues. Professors unable to "make do" without accommodation can face hostile responses from administrators, who see their requests as too expensive or indulgent.3

Meanwhile, the ADA has shown itself to be little help to faculty looking for remedy when universities and colleges refuse accommodation requests. Roughly 90 percent of faculty suing their institutions under the ADA lose their cases. Recent revisions of the definition of disability under the ADA have created a paradoxical set of conditions for academic plaintiffs. One the one hand, the instructor's impairment must be so severe that it will continue to affect her teaching, even after she has acquired corrective or assistive accommodations. On the other hand, the impairment must not in any way "interfere with the professor's job performance."4 These often mutually negating requirements leave few instructors eligible for redress under this landmark legislation.

Even when a new disabled instructor finds a sympathetic institutional ear, the process of achieving accommodation may be difficult. American universities and colleges are continuing the welcome trend of establishing disability centers for their students. It is harder to find schools that have allocated centralized personnel or procedures to aid employees with disabilities. Thus, the professor's academic department may not know what administrative office or staff member could supply the accommodation. Finally, the needs of some instructors may require the aid of several separate offices and staff members.

The very act of acquiring the accommodation she needs to teach becomes part of the new professor's pedagogical learning curve. And this part can be profoundly complicated and time-consuming. But the disabled professor on the tenure-track has one advantage: the ins and outs of getting access from her institution, once learned, will probably remain the same.

Adjunct Instructors with Disabilities

The tenure-track, however, is becoming increasingly out of reach for new Ph.D.s, with or without disabilities. In 2003, sixty-five percent of all faculty positions were non-tenure-track.5 More recent estimates now place that number at seventy percent.6 Additionally, many of those Ph.D.s who land tenure-track jobs, do so only after teaching one or more years as adjunct instructors.

Compared to their tenured and tenure-track peers, adjunct instructors frequently find themselves at a significant disadvantage economically and institutionally. Adjunct pay scales can sink as low as $1400 per course.7 Many adjunct instructors must teach at multiple institutions each term in order to cobble together a living wage.8 They rarely receive health care or other benefits. They often have no or very limited access to basic teaching resources such as computers, printers, copying facilities or office space for meetings with students. Finally, they often have little to no institutional protection.9 Adjunct contracts typically specify that the institution bears no obligation to the instructor other than to pay them for the course they are being contracted to teach.

The nature of the current market for Ph.D.s means that a significant portion of new Ph.D.s with disabilities will work, for at least some time, as adjunct instructors. These Ph.D.s will experience all the challenges already faced by junior faculty with disabilities. But the contingent and undersupported conditions of adjunct work will vastly intensify those challenges. Adjuncts with disabilities cannot count on the institutions who hire them to supply accommodations, just as they cannot expect them to supply computer time or office space. And as we've seen, colleges and universities risk relatively little legally when they decline accommodation requests. This risk must decrease further when the disabled instructor teaches as an adjunct. Schools wanting to avoid the repeated inconvenience of accommodating a disabled adjunct professor may decline to rehire her after her contract for the quarter or semester is up. Even assuming that she is willing to risk being blacklisted by other local colleges for suing, case law suggests that courts nearly always accept the defendant institution's stated reasons of poor teaching performance or budgetary constraints for their refusal to rehire an adjunct with a disability.10

More often, an adjunct Ph.D. with a disability will face less litigious but still difficult scenarios. Given the vulnerability of her position, she may be afraid to ask for accommodations and attempt to teach the best she can without them. She may have to conduct a long and lonely investigation into the offices and personnel of each institution hiring her to teach in order to put in place the accommodations that she needs to teach. She may have to repeat this investigation frequently as she switches institutions, a process that may drain precious energy, take time away from teaching and impede her attempts to find a permanent placement.

Depending on her disability, she may not be able to manage the sufficient teaching load (potentially as high as five to six courses) necessary to make ends meet. At the same time, if she has received Social Security, the bureaucratic clock that limits the amount of time she may remain on benefits will start ticking.11 Income limits for state-sponsored benefits can be so low that she will lose her eligibility for those entirely. Shoved between the rock of benefits loss and the hard place of teaching without benefits, adequate pay or full accessibility, she may find herself forced to leave academia long before other able-bodied adjunct Ph.D.s do the same.


I resigned, due to illness, from a postdoctoral research post. Since my recovery, I have been teaching as an adjunct professor. I have an incomplete spinal cord injury and generally use crutches or a walker. At one small college, the department that hired me placed my classroom on the second floor of a building without a working elevator and refused my request for parking considerations. This college had some real consideration for adjuncts generally, allowing them a mailbox, use of the department copier and a shared office for meetings with students. But none of these were available to me, because both the department and the shared office were on upper floors (of buildings) to which there was no elevator access. I thought that if my classroom remained where it was—up a flight of stairs that I could not climb, in a building beyond a walkable distance from parking—I was going have to resign before the semester began. However, I found someone in Human Resources with sufficient authority and sympathy to at least resolve my elevator and parking issues. This was a stroke of luck, not only for me but for one of my students, who used a wheelchair, and had been scheduled for my section long before we shifted to an accessible classroom.

I did ultimately learn that term what institutional buttons to press for basic classroom accommodations and where the best routes, ramps, parking spaces and elevators on campus could be found. Both were critical pieces of knowledge I needed to do my job. It was knowledge that was not easy to find. As an adjunct, I was left to search for it alone; the Department felt no obligation to assist me, and risked nothing by doing nothing.

And for all that, it is knowledge I may never use again. Next time I stumble or fall before a class, I will have more of an idea of what to say to put my students at ease, whether or not I am able to tie it to the topic at hand. No matter where I teach, I do get to reuse many of the pedagogical lessons I have learned. But so long as I remain on the adjunct track, shifting from employer to employer every term, I will rarely reuse the essential institutional knowledge of where and how to get necessary classroom accommodations at X University or Y Community College.

In his 2003 autobiographical essay, "Why I burned my book," Paul K. Longmore recounted and analyzed the profound obstacles posed to his academic career by the work disincentives of the state and national disability benefits system.12 The essay is at once a narrative of "overcoming" disability and a critique of those narratives. Longmore politicizes his striving and perseverance and identifies systemic discrimination, rather than disability itself, as the barrier he had to overcome.

It is also, for me, painful reading. Sappy and stereotypical as it sounds, what makes re-readings bearable is the narrative's happy personal ending: "I now hold the rank of full professor."13

Unfortunately, the opportunities for Ph.D.s with disabilities to become full professors are growing less, rather than more, available. Research suggests that there is still a pervasive atmosphere of malignant neglect toward faculty accommodation. This, coupled with the explosively expanding shift toward an adjunct, rather than tenured, academic workforce bode ill for aspiring professors with disabilities. The adjunct economy adds yet one more inherent workplace disadvantage to the load of them already borne—and partially documented by Longmore—by new Ph.D.s with disabilities. Meanwhile, students suffer. The low pay, negligible administrative support and packed schedules inherent to the adjunct system prevent able-bodied professors from doing their best for their students.14 And, as I have shown, these barriers to great teaching loom even higher for adjunct lecturers with disabilities.

Coincidental as it was, by placing both me and my student with a disability in an inaccessible classroom, that small college exhibited more than their apathy toward an adjunct employee. It also demonstrated its ongoing disinterest in accommodating any person with a disability. A system that discriminates against teachers with disabilities sends a message to their students with disabilities. It insinuates that people with disabilities are still second-class citizens. When professors with disabilities find themselves further marginalized by the adjunct system, everyone loses. Tenured professors and administrators have begun challenging the adjunct economy as a system that shortchanges students generally. That challenge must go further, exposing the adjunct system as a system that fosters ongoing discrimination within higher education against instructors and students with disabilities.


  1. Annie G. Steinberg, Lisa I. Iezzoni, Alicia Conill, et al, "Reasonable Accommodations for Medical Faculty with Disabilities," Journal of the American Medical Association 288, no. 24 (December 24, 2002): 3150.
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  2. Emily Toth, "Ms. Mentor: Should I Move On?" The Chronicle of Higher Education 54.11 (November 9, 2007): C2.
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  3. Steinberg, 3149-51. For attitudes in academia generally, see also Emily Toth's brief note in: "Ms. Mentor: Can I Dazzle Them with my Energy?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, 51 (August 22, 2005), http://chronicle.com./jobs/news/2005/08/2005082201c.htm (Accessed June 9, 2008).
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  4. Suzanne Abram, " The Americans with Disabilities Act in Higher Education: The Plight of Disabled Faculty," Journal of Law and Education 32, no.1 (January 2003): 1-19.
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  5. Donna Euben, "Legal Contingencies for Contingent Professors," The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 41 (June 16, 2006): B8.
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  6. Alan Finder, "Decline of the Tenure Track Raises Concerns," The New York Times, November 20, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/education/20adjunct.html (Accessed June 9, 2008).
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  7. Finder, "Decline."
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  8. Catherine Adamowicz, "On Adjunct Labor and Community Colleges," Academe 93, no. 6 (November-December 2007), http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2007/ND/Feat/adam.htm (Accessed June 9, 2008).
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  9. Emily Toth, "Ms. Mentor: My Friend is an Adjunct," Chronicle of Higher Education 53.38 (June 8, 2007): C3; Finder, "Decline"; Adamowicz, "Adjunct Labor."
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  10. Abram, "ADA in Higher Education," 10; 18.
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  11. Social Security Administration, Working While Disabled: How We Can Help, (Washington, DC: GPO, 2008), 6-7.
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  12. Paul K. Longmore, "Why I Burned My Book," in Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 230-259.
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  13. Longmore, 257.
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  14. Daniel Jacoby, "Effects of Part-Time Faculty Employment on Community College Graduation Rates," The Journal of Higher Education, 77, no. 6 (October 24, 2006): 1081-1103; Adamowicz, "Adjunct Labor"; Finder, "Decline."
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