Race and Disability in the Academy

Image: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Thursday 9th November, 2017

Moya Bailey

I have, until recently, worked in disability studies as an accomplice, understanding myself as able-bodied and as someone who does not have physical impairments that impact my daily movement through the world. I have however been diagnosed with a chronic illness that is changing the way I understand myself and is surfacing much internalized ableism. Despite writing and teaching about disability justice, the cultures in which I am embedded make it difficult, even for me, to let go of ableist expectations of my labor and comportment.

In a forthcoming article with my friend and colleague Izetta Mobley, we discuss why we as Black people have been reluctant to embrace disability identity. One of the most salient reasons we discuss is the long history of the Black body as a laboring body in America. With our value so much tied up in what we can do, accepting an identity that acknowledges any limitation is literally a hard sell. Black people are already saddled with stereotypes about laziness, low intelligence, irrational anger and violence that opting into another stigmatizing label is not desirable. Additionally, even when our impairments are impossible to ignore, racism precludes Black folks’ ability to access accommodations like our non-Black disabled counterparts.

I feel pressure, self-imposed and beyond, to do more than others to prove my utility and value on the job and any chink in my armor means potential ruin. As a Black queer woman professor, my authority in front of the classroom is often tested by students and I also may be “presumed incompetent” by my colleagues. Research shows that women, non-white, and LGBTQ professors are evaluated as less reliable than their straight white male peers. To add to this mix a chronic illness seems like career suicide. Most literature on disability and higher education focuses on faculty attitudes towards students with disabilities not the needs or experiences of disabled faculty. This scholarly precedent is matched by a culture of silence around disability in which I learned to manage my condition furtively while outwardly advocating for disability justice as a perceived ally.

My fears are not unfounded nor are they uniquely mine. UK researcher Kate Sang reported that the participants in her qualitative research on disabled academics wanted their interviews to remain anonymous “because many expressed concern that being identified could stop them from being able to get a job or a promotion. Some had decided not to apply for promotion because they felt their ‘impairment’ could not be accommodated within an academic career.” Many disabled graduate students have been pushed out of their programs by supervisors who’d rather not support them than provide necessary accommodations.

Despite working in the field of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), a field born of social justice activism and a commitment to diversity, I have seen the ways in which ableism permeates the discipline. Perhaps because WGSS has something to prove to other disciplines about its utility in the academy there is a heightened desire for students and professors alike to be infallible. And what is disability but fallibility personified? Even in the field of disability studies, internalized ableism surfaces in debates about which type of impairments are more debilitating and what impairments shouldn’t be considered disabilities at all. Additionally, race and other intersecting forms of identity remain undertheorized. Despite more people of color having disabilities than white people, the field of disability studies continues to be critiqued for its implicit whiteness.

I am hypervigilant about my work in the academy. As a Black queer chronically ill woman, I work extra hard and produce in excess in the hopes of thwarting a latent imposter syndrome and my internalized ableist standards. My overworking and overproduction prove necessary in a misogynoirist academic culture; however the physical toll on my body and others like mine is palpable. Chandra Mohanty and others have discussed the number of women of color academics who have gone too soon because they worked themselves to death in the academy. While managing diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, depression, autism, border-line personality disorder, shingles, eating disorders, cancer, etc., women of color have achieved some of the highest positions within the academy only to die from these resulting ailments before their time.

My embodied resistance to the ableist and debilitating pace of the academy is figuring out ways to slow down. I am considering the ways I can transform my practice to mirror the research that I produce, which clearly shows that we work too hard and in ways that end up hurting our quality of life for the sake of our livelihood. In what ways can we make more space for disability in the academy, not just for our students but for ourselves?

Dr. Moya Bailey's work focuses on marginalized groups’ use of digital media to promote social justice as acts of self-affirmation and health promotion. She curates the #transformDH Tumblr initiative in Digital Humanities, and is the digital alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network. She is an assistant professor in the department of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies and the program in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University.

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