They rested their head on their desk. Outside, the chirping birds, the longer days and the budding trees were signs of hope and optimism for most of the University of Michigan community, but for our colleague, springtime was a recurring trigger of clinical depression.
A full professor, they had made their way through the ranks of the academy battling bouts of a debilitating depression, which once even landed them in the hospital. Despite their struggle with mental illness, they were a respected scholar in their field with numerous teaching and service awards.
Today, their depression had become too heavy for them to work. Only one thing prevented them from leaving campus and taking refuge in the darkness of their bedroom. They eventually managed to write the dreaded email:
“Dear All: I apologize, but I’m feeling under the weather today. I am canceling our committee meeting scheduled for this afternoon. I’ll follow up later today by email.”
On their way home, they bumped into a co-worker, also an administrator.
“I just saw your email. Under the weather, eh? You look great to me. Got a cold or something?”
Our colleague didn’t want to be prodded any further. They just wanted to get home. They had not disclosed their depression to their department.
“I’m just a little unwell today.”
Not breaking eye contact, the administrator said, tersely, “Well, I hope you feel better.”
They couldn’t tell whether the hint of sarcasm in the administrator’s voice was real or imagined, another microaggression or the product of their imagination. They chalked it up to the latter, but they would never know for sure.
The colleague in this story, like us, is one of many faculty and staff on this campus who identify as disabled or with disabilities. We experience daily microaggressions, offensive remarks, constant challenges with accessibility, a lack of guidance to navigate the disability accommodation process and a general lack of support within an ableist, individualistic campus culture.
Our colleague’s clinical depression qualifies as a disability and is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, unlike programs for students, the University has no effective structure on campus to support faculty and staff. Worse, the University often relies on obscure procedures to deny faculty and staff the accommodations they need without possible recourse. The result is an inequitable accommodation process. Those with invisible disabilities have a greater burden of proof to show the University, and the pervasive racial and gender biases that endure in the medical establishment, and parts of U-M administration make the process all the more difficult to navigate.
In addition to the problems with formal procedures, some facets of our cultural climate are just plain unwelcoming. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the University relaxed rules on masking while our immunocompromised colleagues risked their well-being to teach in person. Then came the rule forbidding us from requiring masking in our classrooms. We are still in a pandemic. U-M health policies threaten the health and well-being of all members of the community, especially people with disabilities.
We chose to work and would like to continue working for the University in a climate that is inclusive and supportive. Moving forward, we expect a workplace that embraces disability: not one that grudgingly complies with the ADA, but exceeds its standards. As productive and successful members of this University, we believe disability culture has a place and a role here at the University.
Aligned with ethnic, gender and racial justice, disability justice requires intentional cultural transformation on campus. We seek a path forward through building community, confronting structural barriers and creating a transparent accommodations process for staff and faculty.
We suggest expanding the LSA’s Disability Navigators Pilot Program, a successful pilot program that promotes disability justice and supports employees with disabilities across all sectors on campus through a lens of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We enthusiastically support converting DEI 1.0 rhetoric into DEI 2.0 actions and implementation plans that are radically equitable, inclusive and meaningful. We support building upon the recommendations of the Student Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility Board, a committee that was organized within the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
One such recommendation we fervently support is the establishment of a Disability Culture Center at the University. Additionally, we would like to see an active critique to address ableist language in the Standard Practices Guides, training requirements for unit administrators and a reevaluation of profoundly ableist U-M policies.
Working in partnership with Disability Culture at the University of Michigan, we formed the Disability Justice Network to provide support and foster a discussion forum for staff and faculty and cultivate change on campus. Initially funded by the University’s ADVANCE Program, the Disability Justice Network seeks to broaden its network of allies to include administrators, faculty and staff. Anyone wishing to be a part of the conversation can join the Disability Justice Network MCommunity listserv here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over 30 years ago, paving the way for people with disabilities to become protected members of the workforce, the campus disability community, like other marginalized groups, has not been fully recognized and valued within our larger academic community. We extend to all U-M administrators, and especially University President Santa Ono, an open invitation to explore how we might transform U-M policies and practices that fully support people with disabilities.
Ann Jeffers is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Emmanuelle Marquis is a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the College of Engineering, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Adams is the director of the University of Michigan Initiative on Disability Studies and an Associate Professor of Architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. They can be reached at email@example.com.
Vivian Cheung is a Professor at the Medical School, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remi Yergeau is an Associate Professor of English Language and Literature, and can be reached at email@example.com.