While I feel that the pandemic brought the impact of mental and physical health on daily life more into focus, it’s still hard for us to balance wellness with work. I love my work, but this is a daily struggle for me. Throw some health challenges into the mix, and suddenly that juggling act gets way trickier. For those dealing with series health issues or some form of a disability, keeping up with job responsibilities plus family and other life responsibilities, is just a lot. I’m so thankful for the support my team has offered me during times of challenge, and appreciate hearing from our guest author today about some ideas for supporting others in the workplace. Thank you Jenny for sharing this insight and your lessons learned from supporting institutional staff.

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Scenes from a Faculty Office

As I was sitting in her office discussing plans to sub for her upcoming classes, my friend and colleague paused a moment and said, “Hold on, I forgot I need to call my nurse back. She called while I was in my last class.”

a woman sitting at a table and talking on a cell phone
Image by Vinzent Weinbeer from Pixabay

Rachel (pseudonym) was having yet another surgery, and I was covering all her classes for her while she was in the early stages of recovery. Rachel was a full-time tenured professor, and I was a young part-time instructor, so I had not only the time but frankly also the need for some extra income, and I enjoyed subbing for my colleagues. As the “baby” of the department, I was by far the youngest and least experienced of all my colleagues, so subbing was a great resource to introduce me to fellow faculty and gain exposure to a wide range of teaching practices and content. Unfortunately, the need for a sub often meant that an instructor was sick, injured, or recovering from a health event.

Rachel got off the phone with the nurse and explained some more of the details of her upcoming surgery to me. When I had met her a few years ago, she had been recovering from a different kind of surgery: I vividly remember her trying to navigate corridors and elevators with her foot in a boot on one of those motorized vehicles that keep your leg extended out behind you like a superhero in a permanent dash in a comic book square.

As Rachel continued, she paused again and said she needed to call and cancel her physical therapy appointment. Then she needed to call and schedule a hydrotherapy appointment for her chronic pain. Then she called her therapist to make an appointment because, frankly, this was a lot. Still, Rachel acted like this was just another day in her life. Because that’s exactly what it was.

Disability Unmasked

Rachel is far from the only woman with disabilities teaching at a college or university. Women suffer from more disabilities than men in a variety of ways. According to the National Institutes of Health, women surpass men for invisible disabilities of all kinds: “Many common chronic conditions are not female-specific but occur at substantially higher rates in women compared to men. Women constitute nearly 80% of the population affected by autoimmune disease and bear a disproportionately high morbidity associated with this spectrum of conditions. Other disorders, such as depression, are thought to be disproportionately high among women for a combination of innate factors (e.g., fluctuations in hormones), as well as social factors (e.g., high rates of exposure to intimate partner violence).”

As if hormones, domestic violence, autoimmune, and chronic issues were not enough to contend with as invisible barriers, neurodivergent women also present differently than men. This means that while some facets of invisibility are unintentional, some women engage in “masking” or the “unconscious or conscious effort to hide and cover one’s own self from the world, as an attempt to accommodate others and coexist” (Nurenberg 8). Thus, women often must navigate not only their own disabilities but also decisions about their visibility within the workplace.

So why are women faculty with disabilities of concern? According to Lauren Lindstrom, Assistant Professor and Senior Research Associate at the University of Oregon, Eugene, “Low expectations for individuals with disabilities, lack of family support, and disability discrimination may further limit employment options for women with disabilities preparing to either enter the workforce or make a career change. Thus the ‘choice’ of a job is by default a selection from a narrow range of options.”

One of the most viable options for women has been to teach at the college level. Tenured faculty not only benefited from job security and health benefits but also limited time requiring them to go into work: teach classes, hold office hours, attend meetings, and you’re set. A tenured teaching position is by no means a part-time job, but its requirements to be on campus might be very part-time, or even nonexistent given the advent of online teaching.

Lessons Learned and Key Takeaways

Five years ago, I moved from teaching into administration, specifically in faculty development. In supporting women faculty with disabilities during this time (including during a pandemic), their unique needs became clear to me in ways I had not considered before. Here are some suggestions for how you can support your female faculty working with disabilities at your institution.

Image by gomiche from Pixabay
  1. Choice: As stated earlier, choice is an important factor in a career, but once in a career, chosen profession, or position, choice remains integral. I have seen many administrators try to steer female faculty with disabilities into online teaching positions. Yes, teaching online only is a viable option for some, but for others, it is not their ideal. Some women faculty need the community and camaraderie of interacting with their students and colleagues in person. That engagement might be the highlight of their day. Having intentional conversations with your faculty about their options, their choices, and their needs is essential.
  2. Ongoing Support: After a major health event such as cancer, an automobile accident, or a high-risk pregnancy, it is unrealistic to expect things to go “back to normal.” People change. Physical trauma can leave permanent disabilities, and trauma, anxiety, and post-partum depression are all invisible disabilities affecting women in higher percentages than men. After one faculty friend and colleague of mine was in the hospital for life-threatening gynecological complications, she had to return to the classroom to teach multiple students who worked at the local hospital and had been part of her care team. Catching up on teaching and grading duties, navigating new permanent disabilities, and dealing with a source of environmental anxiety took an extreme toll on her. Ongoing support in the form of co-teachers, graduate assistants, counseling, routine check-ins, and flexibility in workload and workplace can go a long way to retaining valued faculty.

When supporting your female faculty with disabilities, remember that while you should do everything that you can to reasonably accommodate them and retain them at your institution, this might not always be possible. I have seen fantastic female faculty leave tenured positions because they could not access adequate healthcare for their disabilities near their institutions, forcing them to relocate to areas where there were more opportunities for accessible healthcare to meet their specific needs. A professor’s health situation might make any kind of employment unreasonable or untenable at any moment. However, supporting female faculty with disabilities in our institutions not only helps them achieve their personal and professional goals but also aids us in embracing diversity in all forms and retaining a stronger workforce.

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Burke, Lilah. “A Difficult Pathway.” Inside Higher Ed. May 11, 2021.
  • Grandin, Temple.Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions. Riverhead Books, 2022.
  • Harkins, Elizabeth A. “Disability as a Valuable Form of Diversity, Not a Deficit.” Faculty Focus. December 5, 2022.
  • Heumann, Judith. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. Beacon Press, 2020.
  • Nerenberg, Jenara. Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You. HarperOne, 2020.
  • O’Toole, Jennifer Cooke. Autism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum. Skyhorse, 2018.

Jenny L. Reichart

Higher Education Consultant, Speaker, and Author


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