Last year, one of my best friends, who I will call Jane, experienced a great deal of academic ableism from a professor in their major. While I wasn’t there to witness what happened in the classroom, I watched Jane suffer from a mental and emotional burnout that left them afraid to disclose their disability and had them question if their disability was really a burden on others like their professor had led them to believe. Jane was afraid to report this behavior out of fear that the professor would retaliate against them, so I offered to help them and report the academic ableism on their behalf. Based on that experience, today I will be sharing my tips for reporting academic ableism for someone else/on behalf of someone else at the college/university level.
WHAT IS ACADEMIC ABLEISM?
Academic ableism is a term that was coined to describe the discrimination of disabled people in the academic space. Some examples of academic ableism include:
- Not following an IEP, 504 Plan, or other disability accommodations
- Providing inaccessible classroom materials
- Using disability as a punchline or mocking people with disabilities
- Talking about a person instead of directly to them, or speaking on their behalf
- Questioning if a person is actually disabled
WHAT ISN’T ACADEMIC ABLEISM?
While this post specifically focuses on academic ableism, it’s helpful to know what behavior is and isn’t ableism. Some examples of things that are not considered academic ableism include:
- Referring to people with identity-first language, i.e “blind student”
- Using words such as see, look, or hear in context, such as “did you hear about that?” or “did you see the new movie?”
- Asking questions about disability or assistive technology in a respectful/meaningful way
First, determine what has been done
One of the most important skills that a student can develop is self-advocacy and learning how to handle situations independently before asking for help from others. I didn’t want Jane to think that I was going to instantly solve their problem or that I was going to step in whenever they had an issue, so I helped guide Jane on ways that they could try to handle this issue on their own. Some of these methods include:
- Understanding how accommodations should be implemented and knowing what is included in the Disability Services file
- Researching on-campus resources that could potentially help with solving the issue
- Talking to their disability case manager about the situation
- Meet with the professor and talk to them about how to implement accommodations in the classroom
- Talking to the department chair
Jane did all of these things, but they still were dealing with academic ableism in the classroom, and told me that they were afraid to say anything because Jane felt like they would just be told to do all of these things again. Even after the semester ended, Jane said that they were worried about working with that professor in any context because being around them gave Jane a lot of anxiety. Jane needed someone to listen to what they had to say, but was scared to be the one to speak up about this behavior.
- What To Know About College Assistive Technology Specialists
- How To Create A Disability Services File
- Blindness Canes and Accessibility Issues: Navigating College Campuses
Deciding who will file the report
After the semester ended, Jane expressed interest in reporting the professor for academic ableism, though could not find a way to report what had happened anonymously. Jane feared that the professor or their department would retaliate against them if word got out that Jane was the one to make the report, so they weren’t sure what to do. Jane ended up asking me if I could be the one to file the report because we are in different majors and there is no indication online that we know each other, so their identity would be protected. I agreed immediately and started to outline what we would do next.
I recognize that a lot of students may not have a friend that is well-versed in disability issues, and I am honored to be that friend for Jane and so many other people. I strongly recommend that students dealing with academic ableism choose a friend that is outside of their major/department when possible, or have someone who is not affiliated with the college/university file the report.
Outlining next steps
I have a lot of experience with reporting academic ableism, so outlining what Jane and I would need to do next was a natural process for me. I told Jane that while I was happy to help, I was not going to put words in their mouth or speak on their behalf and that they would have to send me the following items before I could file the report:
- Screenshots of relevant emails related to the academic ableism with names redacted. I had Jane color code how they redacted names so that their name was blue, their parent’s name was green, etc
- A timeline of what went down during the semester with dates, such as days they met with the professor and dates of academic ableism incidents
- A written statement about how the events in the timeline affected them, which included information about their treatment for mental burnout and how this experience affected them
I made it clear to Jane that filing this report would not mean that this professor would immediately leave the university and never come back. I told Jane that it is not their call to determine whether there will be consequences or action taken against the person for their academic ableism, but if they stay quiet and pretend that nothing happened, then there will definitely be no consequences and the person will get the message that it’s okay to act this way, and may target another student in the future. Even if there are no consequences now, reporting these incidents may help others in the future who experience the same thing, or they may receive consequences in private or at a later time.
Filing the report
Before I filed the report, I double-checked the files to ensure that no information that Jane had sent me could potentially reveal their real name. After that, I called Jane on video chat and we began the work of filing the report on the university’s ethics website. On the report, I listed my own name and contact information and the name of the professor and then classified the incident as being a disability-related ethics violation. When asked to provide a brief account of the incident, I wrote the following:
I (Veronica Lewis) am filing this report on behalf of another student (Jane Doe) who is afraid of retaliation for filing this complaint. Jane Doe is an undergraduate student in the DEPARTMENT who faced discrimination based on their disability from PROFESSOR NAME on numerous occasions during the SEMESTER and suffered from mental and emotional burnout related to the situation that prevented them from being able to report this issue sooner. Additional documentation, including email screenshots and an incident timeline, are available upon request and will be emailed separately from this form. Below is Jane Doe’s statement on how this incident affected them (text from here is written by Jane Doe).
I then copy and pasted Jane’s written statement, which discussed more specific examples of the academic ableism they faced and how this behavior had affected them. If I had more space to write, I would have included the timeline and screenshots, but this was not an option. Jane and I chose not to disclose their specific disability because Jane did not feel comfortable doing so.
Talking about the report
A few days later, I received a message saying that my report had been received and that I would be meeting with a staff member to discuss what had happened. At this point, I sent the screenshots and Jane’s detailed timeline, and scheduled a time that would work well for Jane and myself. I forwarded the emails to Jane and I decided that I would have Jane listen to the conversation on video chat while I talked to the staff member on the phone, and that I would have headphones in so that I could ask questions or relay information to Jane without the staff member hearing Jane’s voice. I told this to the staff member, who was fine with this arrangement, though Jane ended up texting me instead of asking questions over video chat.
When I talked to the staff member, I stated that I had not witnessed any of the academic ableism that Jane had experienced and that I could only answer questions based on what Jane had written, or relay questions to Jane and have them answer for me. We went over a lot of the documentation that Jane had sent, and the staff member agreed to talk to the professor and other faculty on our behalf to ensure that this behavior would not continue. The incident was also entered into a university database so that if other students came forward, the documentation from this incident would be available.
I received another message a few weeks later saying that the staff member had talked to several faculty members about the academic ableism that had taken place, and that no further action would be taken at this time to ensure that Jane’s identity remained protected. While Jane and I may never know if additional consequences were put in place for the incident, Jane is happy that someone finally took the time to listen and that they felt like they didn’t have to carry the burden of what happened anymore. Personally, I hope that the professor will take the time to learn about how to better implement disability accommodations for students in their classes and that they will get to know more of the awesome accessibility resources that are available for professors.
Summary of Reporting Academic Ableism for Someone Else
- Academic ableism is defined as the discrimination against disabled people in the academic space
- Before deciding to file a report, make sure that the student has had the opportunity to practice self-advocacy
- Have someone from outside of the major/department file the report
- Create a series of documents that feature the student’s own words about what happened, as well as timelines for incidents
- Have the student present when filing the report online, and make sure to note that this is being filed on behalf of another student
- Include the student in meetings and communications whenever possible, and have them write responses to questions
- Know that it is not up to the student to determine what consequences will be given, but staying quiet means that no consequences will be given at all