Tell me what it takes to get to the door? Or do I just not pay attention when you tell them something to do? Age sex. University politics. Perceived disability. In an effort to achieve the position of a faculty in higher education, I have been simply deprived of the freedom to define each individual, committee, or university. No mention was made of my success or resilience – and no questions asked. Some of us know better than others how broken the world is. Higher education is no different.
So, let’s address elephants in academia. Where are disabled and / or neurodiversent faculty members? I can guess that they are one of two places. The first place I would guess is in a case other than academia. They are not faculty members because by the way someone has decided to qualify them and feel they are less than something they never need to disclose. Yet it is not less against them. The second place is in their offices and classrooms across campuses across the United States, potentially hiding who they are or how they are being treated differently because of their condition.
I suffered my most life-threatening mild traumatic brain injury, or injury, at the age of 16 – over 15 I survived a football game. Since that day, no matter what I believe or tell anyone, I have become disabled. My life was not the same. I still suffer from headaches, pain, memory loss, cognitive fatigue, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other cognitive deficits that I manage every day. The doctors told me to give up my college dream. I looked like almost everyone I knew either left me or failed to believe that my injury was real and I was still suffering because it was not seen.
After ten years, three neck surgeries, a little solo world tour, mountain climb, many failures and rejections, countless cries, a few victories, relentless efforts and three degrees, I am here, standing in front of the class, tired. Some would call the experience of interviewing for a neurodivergent, disabled, 20-something female full-time faculty job traumatizing and showed a real lack of accessibility. But I did not give up. I don’t fit any agenda I was changing. I worked tirelessly on tips and tricks to navigate the interview and when I couldn’t remember the questions or when my speech became blurry or abruptly cut off and I lost sight of what I was talking about. After more than a year of trying, I finally landed a full-time faculty position in the fall of 2021. But let me be clear: I’ve rarely made it here, and I wasn’t the first choice for the position.
I love my job and believe in sharing my disability status with my students. I believe in going against the grain by sharing my struggles and stories with colleagues and the administration. I use it as a proof to test who I am and who they are
Now let’s take a look directly at some of the things you should do to deal with your disabled and neurodegenerative colleagues. Check your bias and how you talk to us, whether we have visible or invisible disabilities. Stop saying, “I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told me” or “You hid it so well” or “It must be hard” or “Wow, you’re so strong, I could not have imagined,” By These are not compliments. We are all doing the same thing here, but many of us are not paying the same price. Some of us don’t have to choose between our jobs and our health every day. Some of us do not need to bring animals to our service or use auxiliary equipment or technology. Some of us can sit in a one to four hour meeting without a cognitive collapse so intense that they can’t drive home. Some of us do not have physical disabilities. None of us have an invisible disability.
But most importantly, none of us have it that we are better off without it. We’re paying a price. We have to choose between work and health. We need helpful technology and service animals. We could not drive home after work or meeting because the day took everything away from us and it was no longer safe to do so. We have physical and invisible disabilities. We personally adjust our schedule and strategy. We have the bag of strategy, which we just call our life, that goes through our daily lives.
Don’t be mistaken for taking my word for pity, for less work, or for taking it easy on us. No, we are faculty members and people like everyone else, and we want to be treated that way. But a little consideration goes a long way, because there is a part of us who are not like you. My disability, gender and age have been portrayed as vulnerable and have been used against me more times than I can count. Why don’t we see them as strengths? In my experience, by showing my best and worst days and simply telling them, “I am the one who has been able to connect and engage such students deeply. Let’s get started now.”
So let’s address the elephant in the house again. Where are all the neurodivergents and faculty members with disabilities? They are exactly where you put them with your attitude, opinions and lack of accessibility and consideration. Understand that we are capable, with an incredible mind, and although being disabled may be part of our identity, it does not determine who we are. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself when I say it’s tiring acting “normal” when I feel something other than normal. As many strangers, friends and colleagues have told me, I am not like other people. So, to quote Luvvi Ajayi, “In a world that wants to whisper to us, I like to shout.” Higher education and the world wants us to whisper, so I’m screaming here.